As I started the first of three volumes, I was relieved that I had forgotten quite a bit. With Waugh, there are so few books, and really so few words, there is always a sense that they are so familiar, you almost have them memorized.
The three make up a sad and beautiful work (Sword of Honour consisting of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender). The protagonist, Guy Crouchback, is a bit like Waugh; he enlists in the British Army as World War II begins, in a regular regiment, even though he is old for the infantry. His simple patriotic duty; and yet: Crouchback has had a long dry spell in his life since his wife left him, and he is counting on the war to bring him back to life. The trilogy is his story of self-discovery, of realizing that he had got into a bad place before the war by his own decisions, and he had foolish notions of the war making everything better.
Towards the end he hears from a Jewish refugee, a woman named Mme Kanyi. "It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians--not very many perhaps--who felt this. Were there none in England?" Crouchback replies: "God forgive me ... I was one of them."
For many pages, very little seems to happen. After the British Army was driven out of France at Dunkirk, there was little opportunity to fight for many years. Crouchback gets a bit more than a glimpse of the coast of Africa, some time later he gets to Crete in time for a horrifying retreat, and then he is in Croatia, practically in the middle of nowhere as the Communists take over, getting plenty of aid from the U.S. and Britain, and begin the ruthless disposal of their enemies. Much of war is ludicrous and cruel, yet it matters who is brave and who is not, and who is on what side. A golden aristocratic type named Ivor Claire escapes from Crete by abandoning his men and hiding. Crouchback's departure is similar, except that he asks if any of his men want to take one of two places on a hopeless small boat; when none of them speak up, Crouchback embarks, and although he nearly dies before they are rescued, he both survives and avoids prison camp. Claire knows that there is gossip that he was a deserter and a coward. Crouchback, while still blaming Claire (being unable to remain his friend) has a somewhat different perspective.
Unconditional Surrender, p. 127: 'Ivor doesn't believe in sacrifice. Who does nowadays? But he had the will to win.'
This causes Crouchback to reflect that he may be the opposite: lots of quiet, suffering sacrifice--becoming lonelier and lonelier--but not much will to win. Is one really better than the other? Well, the willingness to sacrifice is related to moral virtue, and even to ancient Greek virtue.