A group of New Zealand soldiers during the Second World War, we follow them from England to their deployment in Crete – in boredom, in terror, in transit, in confusion. Before leaving England, one of lower-rank, Cousins, is killed during a training exercise. Was it an accident, a suicide, or murder? A middle-ranked soldier, Breen, becomes determined to discover the answer – but has a crime been committed, or is Breen just trying to make sense of events in a world where “We take decent ordinary fellows and we train them to kill other decent ordinary fellows”? Breen pursues the case while drifting into a relationship with higher-ranked Sinclair.
Soldiers is a beautiful, disturbing, and visceral read. The long periods of inaction, with the soldiers longing for action but also not wanting anything to happen. The presence of Anzacs who served in the First World War, experienced but not welcome, “the Anzacs had grown old and fussy”. The reputation of the New Zealanders not being great from the earlier conflict: “They were not kind”, “Your fathers were not gentle.” And the situation Breen finds himself in; discovering that Cousins had written a letter before he died “The bastard topped himself … Now, who made him do that? And what the hell am I going to do about it?”, and when he finds himself attracted to Sinclair, “I didn’t even know it could be a thing … Not really. Buggered if I know why people joke about it”.
All the characters are similar in their trauma but unique in themselves, Tiger: “self-belief, luck, and an eye for the main chance”, Sinclair: a coward or just human believing “It’s no one’s duty to die”? Clark: a gambler, in debt to one of his men: “We’re a classless society” … “Sure we are”. Most of them are situated in a religion, but even the Catholic Father Emmet is a man in a war, is he protecting the seal of confession, or expressing his own opinion, when not helping Breen with his investigations? For Breen finds many motives for murder: sex, money, threats to prestige. He thinks he knows the culprit at one point, and leaves the suspect to the Germans rather than helping him, believing “… he had restored some sort of justice in the world”, but then he realises who the killer really is, as he believes he has witnessed him trying to kill someone else.
How reliable are Breen’s suspicions? He is drifting, “I don’t know that it’ll ever be over”. He is bone weary, he is forgetting things, “it was a long time since Breen had seen what trees were like at home”, he is feeling distanced from his fellows, “… they lay smoking in the dark, laughing at jokes that Breen could not understand”. And he becomes like another soldier he had earlier talked to, finding killing a man, “didn’t feel any different from shooting a rabbit or watching a man fall down a hill”. No-one supports his theory of murder, and the disagreement gets in the way of his relationship with Sinclair. His mates still support Breen, they just ignore his pursuit of Cousin’s case, advising “You’re struggling, but you want things to fit into a pattern so that the world is in your control again and isn’t a place where people just die for no reason”.
All the soldiers are in a surreal environment. In England birds were active at night due to the light from a burning London. They remember Burnham as “Queues and unfamiliar bugle calls”. The reader is reminded occasionally that most of the boys are very young, what Sinclair later remembers of Breen is the “1939 appeal in his smile”. Breen and Sinclair both see mirages in a waterfall. The wearier Breen becomes, the more he “felt like a lost dog willing to obey any commanding voice”: “It would be so easy to sit in one place and wait. To hear unworried orders felt like listening to the heavy radio at home.”
What happened to Cousins drifts and wavers, when his brother writes to Breen, is he just wanting to hang on to the connection to a dead brother? Or is it more evidence? And we see crimes being committed and being left as “They didn’t have time to sort it out”. Breen is perplexed, “You’re saying we can’t have justice because justice is not a military necessity”. And what is justice during a war? Men who are not heroes are named heroes; it happens so often that it makes accepting undeserved medals acceptable. And those that get home take their secrets with them, “The soldiers came home and each of them wandered away from the others, looking for an emptier horizon and – some of them – with things to be ashamed of”.
They had lives before, they hope for lives after, “… what happened in this strange time didn’t really count”. But of course, things are never left behind. We read of Sinclair’s wife, eventually burdened with all his secrets, thinking of the women who must now be expecting their sons to be taken away when the next war breaks out. The women who know “We cannot simply do what we will, and so we are left to do what we can”. I coincidently yet appropriately read Soldiers over Anzac weekend and I absolutely loved it. Read it and see what you think.