Charley’s War is probably still Britain’s most celebrated World War I comic story. It was aimed at boys fascinated with soldiers but, with Pat Mills in charge of writing, it didn’t glamourise or wash over the mental horror of the trenches. Being a comic for kids, however, it was never going to detail the sheer bloody carnage: the mincemeat it made of a generation of men.
Jacques Tardi takes up that responsibility in Goddamn This War. The flippant-sounding title is a smoke screen – replace ‘goddamn’ with the worst swear word you know, and repeat it to yourself with as much fear, anger and despair as you can muster. That’s the real title of this book.
Most of it follows one French soldier through all four years of the war, as he leaves his home town with a band of fellows, then witnesses their senseless destruction. He questions his place, his role and the point of the war as a whole. He questions everything but he knows that to speak out would simply replace the near certainty of death by German bullet/shrapnel/grenade/gas attack with the absolute certainty of death by a French firing squad.
Tardi doesn’t turn away from the carnage. Bodies litter the pages of this book, few of them whole. Limbs, hands, heads, feet, faces – the tools of war are designed to rip these things from their human targets and Goddamn This War will leave you in little doubt about how successful they were at doing it. The colours in the book all fade to muddy brown as the war progresses, as the landscape and the humanity upon it are slowly ground into a muddy pulp. This does little to remove the reader from the horror and, with the help of Tardi’s illustrations, there’s little opportunity to escape the destruction.
The final chapter flits around time and space, taking snapshots of people involved in the war, like an album of clippings from a newspaper. It’s a whirlwind tour, as disjointed and confusing as the war itself, but it has its own rhythm of uniform design, and tells untold stories in single frames that might never, otherwise, be told.
Goddam This War is an honest, brutal book, that gives a voice to the common soldier, caught up in the conscription to a war he barely understands. It’s a statement of solidarity with a reluctant hero and a harsh reminder that we must never, ever let this happen again.