Human Nature and Waugh's Phoney War

Waugh's Phoney War scammers become heroes because they are all in it together. [Images: Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Put Out More FlagsPut Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Waugh begins with two quotes from Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living. Interestingly, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank used the epigraph as a critique of President Trump's February 2018 plans to hold a "grand military parade" in Washington. Yutang's epigraph provides Waugh's title:
A man getting drunk at a farewell party should strike a musical tone, in order to strengthen his spirit . . . and a drunk military man should order gallons and put out more flags in order to increase his military splendor.
A second quote from Yutang applies equally to the work of Waugh and Trump:
A little injustice in the heart can be drowned by wine; but a great injustice in the world can be drowned only by the sword.
Yet Milbank's critique of Trump refers to the Classical Roman triumphal parades, sans the ego check:
There’s only one problem with this plan, as I see it. In the Roman triumph, a slave would ride with the general in his chariot and repeatedly whisper into his ear, “Memento mori”: Remember, you are mortal. For our parading president, this could be a dealbreaker.
The Evelyn Waugh Society was chuffed that Put Out More Flags got a guernsey. But here is the "dealbreaker" for comparing the theme of Waugh's story with contemporary conflicts: Waugh's characters all act like petty scammers and nepotists during the Phoney War, but by the time the conflict begins, and reality hits the first casualty, we see a change of heart as the characters step up and do their duty. Nonetheless, the period before the evacuation of Dunkirk and the ensuing Battle of Britain was remarkably un-warlike. Waugh captures this time satirically. I was confused about the theme of this work and so I turned to John Chamberlain's 1942 review in The New York Times. Chamberlain wrote:
[The story] starts out as a wicked satire in the well-known Waugh manner and ends up as a morality play.
I rather thought it otherwise - that Waugh was looking at human nature when there was nothing to lose, versus once the first blood is spilt. Once our first war casualty appears, everyone except the author rushes to become a commando or refuses a commission so they can serve as private soldiers. Otherwise, they are all silver-tails who try to gain obscure roles in safe office jobs. There is one scene, however, where the author is exiled to Ireland, that reminds me of the present. Basil Seal, in his attempt to increase his tenuous status in the bureaucracy, accuses the author of being a Nazi (a situation which Basil himself orchestrated). This results in the author's exile and I watched the movie Trumbo immediately after finishing the book. To be un-American (or indeed, un-Australian) seems to be a timeless farce. Chamberlain thought the change in attitude of the elites rather absurd, that it was not "good Waugh". Yet the book remains a classic, with Bridey Heing writing for Pank Magazine in 2015 claiming that:
...telling a story that is humorous without making a joke of war itself can be extremely difficult [and] Put Out More Flags is laugh-out-loud funny, and the humor being at the expense of the war industry makes that laughter cathartic.
I certainly didn't laugh out loud, but I intend to read more of Waugh's work. Once I started, I barely put this book down. This is the first Evelyn Waugh novel I have read, and I have A Handful of Dust to read next.

View all my reviews