On October 6, 1940, Evelyn Waugh made an entry in his diary that will puzzle and dismay readers accustomed to the celebratory view of World War II presented in, say, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation: "The most valuable thing is to stop the fighting and working part of the nation from thinking." The tone is of course ironic, and indeed, this passage is at odds with the bulk of Waugh's wartime diaries, which are stylistically immediate and purposeful, a narrative of what happened to Waugh—when, where, and how. But at this point he paused for some acid comment: "War will go on until it is clear to thinking observers that neither side can hope for victory in any terms approximating to the hopes with which they started. Fighting troops are not thinking observers." Hence the need, according to Waugh, for those in command to make sure that subordinates had neither the time nor the inclination to ponder their circumstances.
Waugh's war diaries are a cynical, sometimes gleeful chronicle of muddle. They are also the raw material from which would spring his most powerful and telling fiction. The recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy, consisting of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle, was originally published from 1952 to 1961. Waugh was by then an established novelist, known for such stringent satires as Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and his other work of the 1930s, and for Brideshead Revisited—all of which are far better known in the United States than Sword of Honour, his masterpiece. As they were published, the works making up this new opus struck a different chord: the satire was there, the irony, the caustic wit, but laced now with an elegiac melancholy. Waugh recognized that World War II was the great watershed for twentieth-century Britain. He was profoundly mistrustful of the society emerging after the war, and lamented what he saw as the passing of the aristocracy's traditional values and the ascendance of what would come to be called the meritocracy. Sword of Honour is an extended fictional discussion of morality and incipient social change expressed through a gallery of vivid characters who reflect the chaos of war.