Miles Watson (interviewed elsewhere on this site) was born in Evanston, Illinois. The son of a prominent Chicago journalist, he took an early interest in writing and published his first short story at 17. He has since published extensively and won multiple literary awards. His critically-acclaimed works include Cage Life, a sequel, Knuckle Down, a short stories collection, Devils You Know, and a novella The Numbers Game.
Sinner’s Cross goes to places I didn’t want to go. It goes to places you won’t want to go either. Tough. Go there.
It’s a book about War. OK, it’s a book about World War II. No, not even that: it’s a book about a single terrible battle, in a single, pitifully unimportant, little stretch of the Western Front at the end of 1944; a book that focuses on a handful of soldiers, some American, some German. If you want to know, it’s about the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest / Schlacht im Hürtgenwald, and you can look it up on Wikipedia and reassure yourself that the battle really happened.
As a European, born in the second half of the last century, this is the war that serves as my reference point for what war is. It was a line drawn always just behind me as I grew up: the terrible time-before-time whose memories haunted all the adults. There was always the background roll-call of loss – through family albums and holidays and grown-up conversations : …he was killed in the war… it was bombed in the war… before the war we had… this is just where… And always the same litany: it must never happen again.
So out of respect to those who fought that war, I am glad that this book has been written by a meticulous author. I have no doubt that Miles Watson has done justice to the setting, to the place, even to the details of uniforms and equipment and military procedure. I don’t want this review to undermine the terrific literary achievement, sixty-something years on, of writing so faithfully about a particular historical moment. This book has, after all, just won the Best Indie Book Award for Historical Fiction. But beyond the issue of credibility, and my personal distrust of lazier writers, I don’t think that’s what is important about it.
It’s a book about War.
It’s a book about how War works. What it does to human minds, morality, relationships, living bodies, corpses. Miles Watson dissects, unflinchingly, the essential mechanics of what war demands, day by day, as it actually happens, to the people who must fight it. To my mind, versis vertandis Miles Watson could have written this book about any war you like. The first war in recorded history was almost 5,000 years ago. He could have placed it there.
Obviously – which is not the same as ‘it hardly matters’ – War demands that soldiers live with the constant possibility of violent death. In war you will find friends and see them killed or mutilated. You may be killed yourself. If you are only terribly mutilated, you might count yourself lucky. That’s the nature of soldiering; we all know that.
Deaths in reports or telegrams may be cleaned up and made heroic, but on the battlefield it won’t be like that. Death will generally be cruel, painful. Deaths from hideous trauma; perhaps lost, alone, cold, exhausted. Perhaps in some field hospital, with only primitive attempts at remedy. Slow perhaps. Or quick, catastrophic, a body torn apart, unrecognizable. True to the reality, there is a lot death in this book, and Miles Watson doesn’t pull his punches. In the early chapters I found myself stopping quite often as he described the battle – fetching another pointless coffee to go cold beside me, skimming down the page a bit. The deaths are not muted. Unlike the cameras in a traditional war movie, he is clearly not someone who looks away.
Miles Watson does spend more time than I wanted recording the horror of his subject, at the level of fighting and the body. He is very talented. It’s all very vivid and cinematic, though none of it welcome. Several times in the early part of the book I thought “OK, I’ve got it. In a very nasty war, this was a very nasty battle. Everything is grim. Enough already! I got all this several pages back. Let’s move on.” If that had been all that Miles Watson was doing, then certainly I would have discarded this book: it’s a boys’ book, I would have said (deploying my most contemptuous line of criticism to spare myself the need to read more, filing it in my mind alongside the artistically talented but mind-numbingly boring battles-with-orcs which appeared to take up several hours in the final Lord of the Rings film).
But of course Miles Watson is doing more than that, and I could not dismiss it. He quickly dismantles the idea that these men are simply ‘soldiers’. Each one is framed, if only for a moment, and there is nothing homogeneous about them. A few of them are military professionals, but most are accidental soldiers tipped into war out of ordinary lives, each of them painfully individual, many of them manifestly unsuited for the work of war, and differently damaged by it.
Rattling around the back of the narrative, as these motley men press on through the execution of military orders towards increasingly inevitable destruction, there is always the question For what purpose?
‘Giving one’s life for one’s country’ is a metaphor that plays well among those untouched by the battlefield. From some distant place of comfort, Generals demand that the battle be won, ‘whatever the cost’ – as if somehow each of the human sacrifices were merely coins contributed to some marvellous patriotic purchase. (Let us pretend that in such a time, the value of a human life is nothing compared to the incalculable value of the victory for which it is laid down: each victory part of a wider patchwork, each patchwork part of a great and noble plan…) There are no such illusions in Sinner’s Cross.
For the most part these soldiers are following orders that they know have been translated from battle plans made far away by senior strategists with no idea of the terrain, little concept of the battlefield, and often with no evident interest in either the reason for the battle or its outcome. Is this strip of forest worth fighting over? Probably not. Can it be realistically held or taken? Probably not. Will anything much be gained if it is? Probably not. But the battle must be won, whatever it costs. In the course of following their orders, some of these soldiers achieve heroism, some don’t, but there is never the comforting promise that this is useful.
This backdrop insists on the further question So how can they do it? Miles Watson is uncompromising in his reply. With very few exceptions – and of course the exceptions are crucial to the story – what drives them is not principle or conviction or even any meaningful ‘patriotism’ but only the co-ercion of military discipline and circumstance, whether drilled into their personality by years as professional soldiers, or imposed on powerless subordinates through the imperative of obedience. Occasionally they are driven by loyalty to comprades or even friendship. Often they are merely trying to survive.Beyond the empty platitudes, none of these soldiers really knows why they are fighting. Whatever their rank or role, it is not their war.
Miles Watson tells his story from the perspective of three officers, two of them American, one of them German. All of them are flawed, but each is attempting, constrained inevitably by their different histories and abilities, to do the right thing – in circumstances not of their choosing, following orders that make no sense, obliged to make decisions without essential information, battle shocked or injured, coping with chaotic, unintended, almost random consequences.
I assume it is deliberate that the author does not, at any point, pull back and look at the wider context of the war – ask why it happened, why it was necessary, what it achieved. This silence is brave and in its own way powerful. It pre-empts any invitation to smugness as to the virtue of one side, the wickedness of the other: those narratives, however important earlier or later, had little to do with the war as it was fought. It also reflects the lived reality for the soldiers on either side – none of whom is offered the luxury of picking a side or consulted on the objectives.
Miles Watson is American, but elegant in capturing the distinctive culture of the German military. He does so without judgment and it is the similarity rather than the difference in perspective that shines from the narrative. The moment of personal heroism that most stands out – albeit compromised and complex – is by a German soldier, and his nationality does not seem to be the issue. From a European perspective this doesn’t seem problematic. In the immediate bitterness of a war one can demonise any enemy, but sixty years on there is a different perspective. Was this not basically a European civil war, a war against neighbours whom we recognised, nations whose monarchs were related, trading partners with a shared intellectual heritage? We weren’t all on the same side, we weren’t all on the right side, terrible things were done and we are sorry, but we are friends again now…
From his comments, however, both appended to the book and elsewhere, Miles Watson seems to feel that his even-handedness is a slightly risky tack. The war was won because of the American intervention (a fact not widely dwelt upon in Europe) with the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives, in a war that was not theirs. If this sacrifice – so profound, so costly and so far from home – is to be appropriately honoured, is there not an obligation to make the battles worthwhile, the allies heroic, the enemy despicable? The decency and professionalism of the German soldiers – only depicted here as soldiers, the mirror image of their American counterparts and not as evil Nazis – may indeed not play well in the USA. The involvement of the USA in other people’s wars has been contentious for generations, and certainly no less so at the current time.
Because this is a war story, and because it was a painful read, I asked myself at the end if it was really necessary. Hasn’t this story already been done to death? Haven’t all the messages been laid out before us, over and over? Do we really need another book about this? I wouldn’t have asked this question if it were a crime novel or a romance or science fiction, so the question is inherently unfair. But in any case, as I reflected, I had no doubt that we do need this book. Humans never, in any final way, learn the lessons of war. Every generation forgets. We constantly have to find new ways of keeping the old truths alive. My parents’ litany – it must never happen again – seemed meaningful at the time, but it hasn’t influenced history. National wars have never stopped, and the threat of global war is never far away. The many petty nationalisms that are currently driving countries inward and apart all make war more likely. So does climate change, whose impact on resources will probably lead to global instability. So does terrorism, population growth, increasing inequality… In the pendulum of history we are living in terrible times.
And it is always easy, against the frustrations of all the alternatives, to imagine that war would be an easy way of solving disputes or punishing recalcitrant neighbours, a shortcut for dealing with failed negotiations or responding to atrocities. We do need to remember – and we need our children to learn – that there is nothing easy in war.
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