What Will Remain, by Dan Clements, is ‘a war novel born out of the author’s own experiences of serving with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan’. It is visceral writing. The opening pages left me feeling punched in the gut, as I did watching the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan. It is uncompromising and stunningly portrayed.
Told in the first person, the book consists of a series of vignettes which bring to life the daily challenges faced by foot soldiers serving on the front line of a battlefield far from all they have previously known. The men are on patrol, under attack, holed up in camps, coping with the death and disfigurement of comrades. There is fear, exhaustion, boredom and necessary camaraderie. This is no boy’s own flavour of war. Life on both sides of the conflict is debased.
Soldiers are trained to follow orders over instinct. Their mindsets must be altered to overcome primordial, life preserving fear. Once this has been achieved it is little wonder that they return home damaged. To move on they may need to put those they experienced such hell with aside. The shared memories can bring back unbearable pain.
“there are only these pieces left to me, scattered and disordered and incomplete, troubled orphan memories that find no solace in the grand old stories.”
The foot soldiers are directed by officers, disparaged by many for their remove from deadly action. When an act of heroism is picked out as worthy of honour, discomfort is felt. The hollow proclamations of the world mean little beside “every small and careful and honest thing that truly was accomplished, and at such awful cost.” If a soldier accepts a public honour must he also accept authorship of the rest?
Mention is made of how the Afghans treat their women, expecting them to stay at home to serve their husband and family. Afghan men have no qualms about claiming the right to beat their wives. I found it ironic that the soldiers valued their pornography and gifted each other posters of topless women with large breasts. They too regarded females as objects existing for their gratification.
Yet how can we who have never been made to experience war judge how those on the front line should behave? If their actions appear degenerate is it them or what they are forced to endure? By the end of the book the protagonist has returned to England, first to recuperate from injury and then to rejoin society. These later stories demonstrate how hard such adjustments can be.
The war poets express the futility of such conflicts. This tale brings home the mental as well as physical damage caused to individuals who chose to fight for their country, perhaps not understanding what soldiering would entail. Families who took pride in their partner or offspring’s achievements struggle to deal with them once returned. To cope the soldiers must try to forget.
“As a child you know nothing. As an adolescent you know everything. And the rest of your life is that slow, difficult process of unlearning all those things you once thought you knew.”
A searing depiction of war that challenges the popular notion of bravery. This is a challenging and captivating read.