Unlike Henry Farrell, I read with pleasure the entire Flashman series by the now-late George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser created something unique and discomfiting with Flashman — not just a charming anti-hero (like, say, the Han Solo who shot first) but a real, charming, first-person-narrating villain. A coward, Flashman somehow always manages to appear heroic on the battlefield — he is usually doing something for gain or to save his hide, but ends up charging into the mouths of the guns just as if he meant it for crown and country. And when anyone finds out he’s really yellow, Flashman makes sure they die before they can tell.
Henry finds Flashman’s behavior evil, which is fair enough: so do I. I don’t see that means finding the art morally insupportable, though. It lets you think about the limits of human nature, the power of reputation, and the wellsprings of imperial ambition.
More: I don’t see the difference between entering into the violent world of the empire’s frontiers through the wicked Flashman and, say, entering into the violent world of America’s underworld through the wicked Tony Soprano.
Below the fold, I poach my post on Flashman and Fraser from last year.
BUSH AND THE FLASHMAN. To me, the strangest thing about the president’s summer reading list is not its heft, nor its inclusion of heavyweight history and existential literature, but the indication that the President is working his way through the Flashman series, by George MacDonald Fraser. And no, I don’t mean it’s odd because Sir Harry Flashman is a coward, a liar, a drunk, and a bully; nor is it odd because Flashman is more than willing to let his countrymen die to save his reputation.
It’s somewhat surprising because Fraser is a violent opponent of the Iraq War and of the president’s foreign policy. Fraser, an octogenarian Scot, a Tory, and a veteran of HM armed forces, could be heard this year on BBC Radio 4 explaining that “[h]e had never in his life felt more ashamed of his country than he had over Iraq…. He could not get out of his head two pictures, one of a small Iraqi boy with his arms blown off by American bombs, and another of our prime minister smirking sycophantically at President Bush’s side.” Fraser rates Iraq as “The foulest war crime that this country has ever perpetrated.”
But as I say, that makes the choice only somewhat surprising; if the president stayed away from all contemporary authors who oppose his Iraq policy, he’d obviously have slim pickings. What makes it most peculiar is that Fraser thinks the Flashman books themselves — which feature politicians indifferent to the consequences of their policies and reporters so keen for good stories that they somehow confuse the raping, murdering, craven, but undeniably charming Flashman for a hero — provide a basis for opposing the Iraq War. As he writes in a preface to the most recent volume, Flashman on the March, when the British Empire went off to fight a bloody war against a cut-rate tyrant (in this case, in Abyssinia), it did so without “messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover-ups or lies….” And even with those virtues, it still made errors that called the whole enterprise into question.
“There’s bound to be an outcry because we’re not leaving a garrison to pacify the tribes and police the country,” laments one officer about British domestic opinion. “As though Abyssinia were a country to be pacified and ruled with fewer than ten divisions and a great civil power!”… MacDonald allows in a footnote … that “the brief exchanges among Napier’s staff have echoes which continue to be heard today…. Britain’s leaving Abyssinia did not become her as well as her manner of entering it.”
What will the president think when he hears those echoes? (If, of course, he keeps reading Flashman.) Whatever the bad doings of the British empire’s leaders, its soldiers — in Fraser’s versions — almost always acquit themselves well, except for Flashman, who treats war as the occasion for larking about in uniform and winking at the girls. His only real virtue, which can neither balance out his utter irresponsibility nor fill the vacuum where his moral sense should be, is his brutal candor about his bad deeds and worse character when pressed to tell his own story.