Declarations of War - 1971
Deighton’s only published collection of short stories, these twelve stories tell the tales of simple soldiery over two millennia, from troops facing Hannibal’s march on Rome to two GI’s in Vietnam stumbling on an abandoned airfield. Also in the collection is a story about two former comrades meeting after twenty years, and the efforts of a civil war general, teased by his men for his short stature, to get his troops to face the Confederate army coming towards them.
The collection develops the idea that war pushes men to act in a de-humanized and mechanised way which can lead them to achieve super-human acts, for good and ill.
Why it's enjoyable
You can feel Deighton’s sympathy in each of these stories for the ‘poor bloody infantry,’ as you read about the impact on individuals of decisions made by generals and leaders often hundreds and thousands of miles away from the front line. What comes across is both the cameraderie and bravery of the frontline soldier, and the sheer bloody awfulness of most war, despite what Hollywood might show.
All the novella are eminently readable and evidently backed up by Deighton's encyclopedic knowledge of military history. Two of the stories were partly dramatised to illustrate a 1977 documentary interview with Melvyn Bragg.
From the story 'Brent's Deus ex Machina':
'They heard a Lancaster open up to full revs, accelerate along the runway and then totter into the air. The noise made the windows rattle. "Physically," said Gerrard, "you're A1B, as far as I can find: fit for operational pilot duties."
"Actually," admitted Brent, "I don't want to fly again."
"I've done three trips. I saw Gillespie go down over Krefeld, Doc. In flames: it wasn't pretty."
"Everyone knows the feeling of fear, lad."
"But each man does not fly," said Brent.
"You chose to fly," the doctor reasoned.'
The jacket painting on the cover is by Christopher Foss and it depicts characters from all twelve of the stories.
The American edition of the book contains one fewer stories, and is entitled Eleven Declarations of War.
Declarations of War, UK first edition, 1971
Did you know?
This collection contains a hint to the great 'lost' Len Deighton novel. The Vietnam story 'Bases' was originally planned by the author to be a fully-fledged novel before it became a short story. But by the time the story was in development, the war in Vietnam was ending