Bromance of Violence
David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black originally titled Frère d’âme, soul brother in French, is close kin to brothers in arms. Fiercely eloquent, the novel follows a Senegalese soldier serving in the French Army in the Great War trenches. Diop narrates the world through interior monologue, the shifting, quixotic, pastiche of memory and present experience that reverberate around the skull of a man undergoing artillery fire.
Alfa Ndiaye exists in a bubble on the front, defined by his relationship with his soul brother Mademba, who persuaded him to sign up together for “glorious service defending France.” Of course, as for many young people in the provinces, the army attracts as a route out of the familiar village life to exotic foreign lands. When they arrive, they discover that they are functioning as the exotic for the French who regarded the “chocolate soldiers” as a primitive, warrior force animated by blood lust and unrestrained by civilization. The irony: as Europe kills millions in the trenches, it continues recounting to itself its merits as civilized Western societies. Alfa and Mademba realize this but it’s too late to extricate themselves. The war becomes about comradeship and surviving; in fact, the cause of war is left entirely out of the narrative. Deep human ties persist even after death, and the common black blood unites as it soaks indiscriminately into the mud.
Like in William Kentridge’s The Head and the Load, the colonial soldiers own the point of view, and Europe is the savage, inexplicable dark continent. While Kentridge uses historical pageantry wonderful choreography and African choral work to memorialize the experience of the South African servicemen, slaughtered in huge numbers, Diop focuses on a paradigmatic story of two friends.
Diop’s stunning talent is fully displayed in his second novel, tenderness tempers the violence, and a sorrowful love drowns out the din of crashing mortars. The trench fighting is literal madness. However Diop explores PTSD as a fully rational, self-contained internal system that animates Alfa’s bloody vengeance missions to disembowel, kill and dismember German soldiers in the No Man’s Zone. Trauma is literalized as a state of being out of your body, and this disembodiment becomes the portal for invasion and possession by outside spirits. As the tirailleurs become ghosts, never to return to ancestral villages, their traces mark the battlefield and haunt untold historical narratives of war. A million Africans died in WWI, but the story has been erased from both Triple Entente and Central Powers’ history.
It’s hard to read a novel of WWI soldiers without turning to Hemingway. In both The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, soldiers bear wounds internal and external that forever reshape their lives. But Hemingway’s fondness for his soldier boys, battered but unbowed by war, has long played into our collective memory of the war experience. Despite the critique of war embedded in the narrative, many of Hemingway’s characters owe much of their personality and masculine identity to their soldier past. You can’t help but realize that the fiery crucible of war forges “authentic men” in Hemingway’s worldview, to be favorably compared with the frivolous, unmoored and immoral aesthetes of 1920s Left Bank mythology. The Lost Generation, part the latter, part the former, pirouettes around the glory and tragedy of trench death and brotherly sacrifice.
The nostalgia pervading brother-in-arms relationships can also be parsed through the comparisons of such famous contemporary war writings with revisionist views narrated through a post-colonial lens. Meanwhile, the American conversation about the meaning of the right wing bros invasion of the capitol on Jan. 6, lacks any nuance about how this much mythologized warrior camaraderie operates on an ideological foundation of justifying war itself as a rite of male initiation. Indeed, peeking out from the foundations of this myth, one can see trauma ready to pounce on the deluded fighter who has gained in male pride, even as he loses his soul.
Being inclined to a state of permanent war, America is particularly vulnerable to the bromance of violence. Bonding over a hot gun, cold beer and a posture of “nothing means anything” has fatally infected characters in action films, as well as seeping into a generalized culture of nostalgic warrior worship. When the armed brotherhood gets together competitive recklessness motors a suicidal daring that targets the peaceable. American society itself is collateral damage in this fetishized cult of muscular masculinity.
Hard not to notice that this is actually quite far from Plato’s encomium where he praised love of the comrade in arms because it will spur soldiers to bravery, as they fight harder to win the esteem of their fellows, or more specifically in the Symposium, to win the love of their male consorts with whom they march off to war. Somehow, I think that the American version of the warrior bromance skipped over that gay detail in the historical backdrop for brothers in arms.