The hidden stories of war: Mailed Fist, by John Foley, and The Shot, by Sarah Sultoon

War is fascinating especially to those who have not had to fight. But every war story is different. Everyone involved, whether a protagonist or a civilian caught up in events, has a different relationship with the conflict. And we, who comfortably consume war content, whether through the media or in a museum, drown in ephemera. Two war books, one contemporary and one reissue, challenge us to go beyond. Mailed Fist, from the Imperial War Museum, and The Shot, which examines war journalism, complement each other perfectly. 

Front cover of Mailed Fist by John Foley

This blog has covered extensively the Imperial War Museum’s Wartime Classics series of reissued Second World War accounts. In Mailed Fist we return to the 1944 Normandy campaign, as seen through the leader of an armoured troop. John Foley’s fictionalised memoir contrasts with Peter Elstob’s description in Warriors for the working day. Warriors explored the claustrophobic nature of military life, and emphasised the inner battles experienced by each soldier. Mailed Fist is quite different. Foley describes his own experiences as a rookie leader, but as a series of anecdotes. We grimace as he’s bawled out by a series of superiors. We egg him on as he gains the trust of his men. We watch open-mouthed as his luck holds through a number of challenges some self-inflicted. We laugh as he tries to demonstrate cooking and laundry skills to those around him, yet fails miserably. Foley emphasises the technical skills required to stay alive and he is good at making his dry subject accessible. I enjoyed – really – his description of how tank gearing works. Foley does not consider the rights and wrongs of war and as a result the reader feels that this is an authentic and objective account. The only occasion when the reader feels emotion is when Foley and his men are plied with tea by grateful citizens of Eindhoven. Foley’s storytelling choices are quite legitimate but if you want to know about characters as well as equipment I recommend that this is read alongside Warriors.

Front cover of The Shot by Sarah Sultoon

But I also recommend that Mailed Fist is read alongside The Shot, a description of a world in which everything is rotten and the uniforms don’t have badges. Sarah Sultoon’s thriller set in the midst of the Darfur genocide involves journalists and production staff scrambling to generate profitable content for their media conglomerates. Sultoon does not hold back as she describes a world in which the media pats itself on the back for providing ‘voice for the voiceless’ while pandering to the requirements of an audience (us) who are largely indifferent and watch war reports with the same detachment as we might a new sitcom. In this world, everything is ruined, including those taking part. You might start out, as does Samira, a journalist trying to break out of a dull technical role, with the idea that you will seek out and achieve justice. But you are corrupted very quickly, in an environment that encourages you to backstab your colleagues, and incentives that encourage you to give the perspective of a particular combatant. Very soon, you are unsure about ends and means. And once you are convinced that only you have the correct perspective on what you rightly describe as ‘the story’, what is to stop you from concluding that only you have the power to dispense justice?

In the pecking order of war participants, journalists come way down the list. Sultoon makes a compelling argument that they are affected more than most: for them there is no respite away from the front line; by their very nature they continually seek the worst atrocity. Sultoon describes people who have been torn by their experiences. They have more in common with those in uniform than the civilians whose stories they claim to tell: they are unable to conduct ordinary family life. But unlike those in uniform they serve not under a flag but a logo, an on-screen ident on whose behalf they will willingly destroy their own lives. Sultoon suggests that the journalists were broken before they even began: both Samira and photographer Kris have chosen their path in order to face down pre-existing demons. The motives of others are dismissed as shallow or unrealistic, their search for belonging as empty as sharing a yoga class with strangers.

Sultoon’s pretty disgusted with the lot of us: the warlords whose atrocities are committed in a performative way so that they can be reported, the owners of the logos under whose banners the journalists have roared into battle, and – worst of all, the audience who are more voyeurs than viewers:

Pain sells. But only one type of pain – the kid that the people reading about will almost certainly never have to experience Otherwise they wouldn’t watch it, they wouldn’t read about it. It would hit far too close to home. This magazine cover [featuring a murdered civilian] has made millions out of her, that she’ll never see. Even if she were alive.

Let’s not pretend that we went into this thinking we’d see a bunch of wise philosophers undertaking the noblest of assignments. This is a world for bitten men and women. But although the ethics of war reporting has been done before, The Shot takes a new, unambiguously cold angle, presenting undeniably talented but shattered people doing their best to show a world they can’t understand.

The Shot will change the way you think about war, who is in it, who reports it and to what end. As such it is the ideal counterfoil to Mailed Fist which was written at a time we could take the answers to such questions for granted. Read them both.

Thanks to the Imperial War Museum for the review copy of Mailed Fist, to Orenda Books for the review copy of The Shot, and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in both books’ respective blog tours.

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