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Young men who marched proudly off to war

The decades change, but the trenches remain the same

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The war in Iraq has already inspired a catalog of books, but so far the best are nonfiction. (Seymour Hersh's detractors may disagree.) Fictional treatments of the battles in Baghdad and Fallujah will eventually inform attitudes about the Iraq war even more powerfully than today's news reports and histories, but those tales may not appear soon. In the meantime, we're already seeing a season of stirring novels about life as a soldier.

Two new offerings demonstrate just how much depth can be found here: The first is from an experienced author writing about a young man in the trenches of World War I, and the other is from a debut novelist writing about a young man in the trenches of World War II. If there were any lingering doubts, war is hell, and these novels use that furnace to burn away the pretenses of personality and stare straight at the raw elements of human nature.

Sebastian Barry's work is so wrenching that I'm drawn to it almost reluctantly. For most of the last two decades, he's been known primarily as a playwright. "The Steward of Christendom," a draining play about his great-grandfather which takes place in an insane asylum, has appeared to critical acclaim all over the world. But if Barry's smaller body of novels continues to grow, its reputation may someday eclipse that of his theatrical works.

"The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" (1998), about a hapless Irishman caught in a thicket of IRA violence, is the kind of book from which you never recover.

His new novel, A Long Long Way, tells the sad story of Willie Dunne. Too short to join his dad on the Dublin police force, Willie decides to enlist in the English battle against Germany. He's motivated, in part, by vague promises about the chance for Irish boys to win Home Rule for Dublin in exchange for their sacrifice, but Willie thinks "they would be lucky if the war was still there when they got to France." The year is 1914. He's 18 years old.

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