US soldiers reading in Iraq

John Sutherland reports

The top 10 novels supplied to American fighting men by Abe [Books]…: The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling; Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry; Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams; The Collector, John Fowles; Devil’s Guard, George Robert Elford; The Unwanted, John Saul; The Alchemist, Ken Goddard; Apollyon: The Destroyer Unleashed, Tim LaHaye; Master of Dragons, Margaret Weis; The Illuminati, Larry Burkett.

There is a strong whiff of the high school curriculum (Salinger, notably) and a lot of fantasy. The presence of LaHaye’s vision of Armageddon (and the Second Coming) happening in the Middle East in the first years of the 21st century is slightly troubling.

Or greatly. Another book on the list, Devil’s Guard has been “generally regarded as sickening neo-Nazi pornography,” as Sutherland goes on to explain, glorifying warriors who slaughter “abominable sub-humans [Russians, Vietnamese], deserving only of extermination” and eventually go on to continue fighting under the American flag.

But what is striking is the near-complete absence of male-action, war stories. The descendants of Lee’s Miserables obviously get enough of that at work. [Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was the most popular novel read by soldiers during the US Civil War, on both sides.]

Well, most of them do. There is one example of war fiction in this top 10: Elford’s Devil’s Guard…. First published in 1971, Devil’s Guard purports to be the true confessions of a German SS officer, Hans Josef Wagemueller…. Elford’s hero recounts his exploits – bloody and genocidal – as a soldier in the Waffen SS, fighting on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. The tone is savage and unapologetic. Nazi atrocities are, the narrative asserts (with multiple examples), wholly justified by the inhumanity of the Communist foe.

After the (much lamented) defeat of the Reich, Wagemueller escapes to be recruited into the French Foreign Legion. Under his new flag he fights for France in the Indo-Chinese war against the Communist Viet Minh. More abominable sub-humans, deserving only of extermination.

In the Legion with other former Nazis (some 900 of them) he leads the ‘battalion of the damned’ in daring, ruthless, guerrilla fighting behind enemy lines. Two sequels followed, in which Wagemueller ends up fighting under the American flag….

Devil’s Guard was, for a long time, an underground bestseller – most reading copies passing from hand to hand. No self-respecting imprint was keen to be associated with what was generally regarded as sickening neo-Nazi pornography.

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