The lit crit reminds me, I'm reading a novel called "Most Secret" by Nevil Shute, written in 1945. It's the sort of well-crafted narrative general-interest novel that we lost with the death of middlebrow art. Shute's most famous work is On the Beach, but he's a solid storyteller in the repressed "My son John is dead--must water the pansies" British tradition. The most moving emotional moment is when a lonely man has his dog put down because he has no one to leave him with after joining the service--then discovers that he is colorblind, and stuck on shore duty, where he could easily have kept his dog. The deaths of people are slightly more distant.
Anyway, what's particularly struck me about it is the casual acceptance of Germans as monsters, and their gruesome deaths as meritorious and even enjoyable achievements. It never even flirts with moral ambiguity. This sort of thing could never be written today--even the bloodiest war thrillers understand that killing is supposed to be fraught, and that our enemies are fundamentally good people like us with bad leaders or a serious grudge. Early in the book, he describes an incident in a French village where the Germans execute the town joker for making fun of them:
Duchene stared at him in bewilderment. "But why did they do it? All Corbeil is co-operating with the new regime, as the Marshal has said. There is not a de Gaullist in the town. Why must the Germans do a thing like that?"
It was, of course, because they were Germans, but neither Simon nor Duchene had yet come to appreciate that point.
Slightly later, a character whose wife has been killed by German bombs becomes obsessed with damaging the Germans:
In short, nothing that in his loneliness he found to do on shore pleased him so much as his work. Killing the Germans was the greatest fun of all, chasing them, listening for the ping, making fierce detonations all around them in their narrow steel hulls. he lay night after night in his narrow bunk, picturing how the hull would split, the lights go out, and the air pressure rise intolerably round trapped and drowning men. That was the line of thought that gave him most real pleasure at that time.
This is not, mind you, a prelude to a realization of the moral depravity of war; he likes killing Germans, and a very good thing, too. One character, a girl, expresses revulsion at the thought of using flamethrowers on Germans, but is brushed away with the argument that the Germans used them first. Shute makes it clear that she's in the wrong.
It's interesting to read something so unabashedly militant. I wonder what our literature would look like if we had another existential-type war.