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The Myth that War is Entirely Bad

July 30, 2013

Could it be that old soldiers refrain from talking about their war experiences because they’re ashamed to admit that they actually enjoyed it? Certainly, Western society places much stock in listening to the stories of our veterans – but only when what they have to say conforms to our already pre-defined image of what the war poet Wilfred Owen coined as the ‘pity of war’. The presentation of the soldier of 1914-1918, in particular, as the victim distinguished by his subjection to precepts of modern warfare is a broadly accepted axiom. Virginia Woolf’s shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), provides the reader with one legacy of the effect of the modern use of artillery. Dulce et Decorum est, too, penned by the poet Owen in 1917, famously recreated the catastrophic effect of poison gas on the infantry soldier – the one poem that every British schoolchild has had thrust in front of them. But the tyranny of the war poets of the First World War is that today they forward the myopic rhetoric that war was, then as it is now, a sordid, degrading and generally horrific experience for those that took part in it.

Yet the truth, for a long time whitewashed by liberals wishing to render it a taboo subject, is that many soldiers enjoyed and indeed thrived on the battlefield. Although it might have destroyed the man, it might also very well have been the making of him. Certainly, Wilfred Owen, the chief exponent, so we are told, of anti-war sentiment, left enough behind in his letters to contravene common assumptions about himself and his poetry; a man who, before he was ultimately killed in battle, was the embodiment of the perfect soldier, at one point remarking that in battle he blossomed and ‘fought like an angel’. Far from finding the sensation of ‘Going Over the Top’ a demoralising stroll into the abyss, Owen, surprisingly, found it ‘exhilarating… there was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly’. Yet ever since, these remarks made by Owen have been largely censored by a selected history, and indeed a folklore, of the First World War, one that for decades has presented a homogenised Tommy who naively joined up, like so many did in 1914, only to be killed ingloriously in such infamous, foolish and terrifying battles as the Somme 1916 and Passchendaele 1917. Such a view has only been compounded by widely-viewed, but also greatly biased and inaccurate, productions such as the musical Oh! What a Lovely War and the TV comedy Blackadder. Undoubtedly, the tradition of the British soldiers’ harrowing experience on the Western Front has a propensity towards mirroring the standardized headstones of those buried in the war cemeteries that dot Northern France. Yet the uncomfortable truth for some who might read this is that there were those who actually enjoyed the killing, soldiers such as the poet Captain Julian Grenfell.

Julian Grenfell

‘I adore war’, proclaimed Grenfell in 1914, ‘it is like a big picnic but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy’. The archetype of the officer-class, throughout the summer and autumn of 1914 Grenfell made solitary hunting expeditions out towards the enemy to track and kill German soldiers on the frontline. War, for this poet – ironically immortalised in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner – was something more akin to that of a stag hunt; and that was what made Grenfell the exemplary soldier that he was, on one occasion discovering the preliminaries of a German raid, with the result of being able to give warning to his own side and save the lives of many of his comrades. Despite Grenfell’s bravery, he has since been labelled an insalubrious lunatic by those, usually ignorant academics or intellectuals, who find his war-loving remarks and exploits wholly unpalatable; neglecting the consideration that these might very well have been Grenfell’s virtues as a soldier. And Grenfell was by no means alone in his sentiments. Many shared his love of war. Career army officer Adrian Carton de Wiart, despite having received several wounds during the conflict, admitted after 1918 that, ‘Frankly I had enjoyed the war’; while the soldier Graham H. Greenwell, in Infant in Arms: War Letters of a Company Officer, 1914-18 (1972), recalled that the war constituted the happiest years of his life. The artist Percy Wyndham Lewis, positively too, approached his war service in a somewhat different manner, as in some way subjecting himself to the Sublime: ‘You must not miss a war, if one is going! You cannot afford to miss that experience.’ ‘You have not lived if you have not been present at a battle, of that I can assure you’, Lewis later wrote, the famed Vorticist, viewing war through the lens of an aesthete and intellectual, rather than a soldier. But why has this aspect of the soldier’s experience on the Western Front, one that rebukes Owen’s ‘Pity of War’, been neglected and even consciously censored?

After the First World War it became a common pastime for the English intelligentsia to disparage and even mock the virtue of bravery on the battlefield. As George Orwell noted, Britain’s intellectuals ‘regarded physical courage as barbarous’:

“For years after the war, to have any knowledge of or interest in military matters, even to know which end of a gun the bullet comes out of, was suspect in ‘enlightened’ circles. 1914-18 was written off as a meaningless slaughter, and even the men who had been slaughtered were held to be in some way to blame.”

This was largely a result of influential intellectuals with a pacifistic agenda – one that would so disastrously misjudge Hitler in the 1930s. Indeed, in wilfully attempting to prevaricate upon conflict, pacifism all but made it certain. Although at the time the Great War was never intended to be the war to end all wars, as we have been told, latterly it was taken up by the literary canon of WWI, one that did indeed seek to teach a moral lesson. The problem was that it preached the wrong principle. In attempting to manufacture a prolonged, post-1918 peace, authors such as Woolf, H.G. Wells, and almost every writer since who has penned a novel of the Great War, set out to portray their nation’s soldiers, whether they had survived or not, as victims – thus doing them perhaps the greatest disservice ever dished out to a generation of tough fighting men. As opposed to men who had joined up to do their duty they were depicted as ultimately naïve individuals far too susceptible to the whims of empty-headed generals. None of this was true.  However, the idea of the Great War generation’s victimhood is an image that persists to this day. And it is one that we have allowed far to often to be the excuse for not fighting hard and persistently in subsequent warzones – all for fear of engendering the victim. And though, of course, war has it victims, or rather its casualties – there is a great difference between these two words – the term ‘Tommy’ has since been appropriated as nothing but a term that attracts ‘pity’.

The case of Harry Patch, ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, was notable for the manner in which this veteran of Passchendaele, by living as long as he did, was conscripted into the role of the Tommy’s final representative on earth. Despite the undoubted sincerity of Patch, and the authenticity of his own experience, this ‘Last Tommy’ was erroneously considered to speak for all Tommies, as the Sunday Express expressed: ‘Patch was not unique among millions of his comrades who endured that prolonged and supreme test of nerve and courage. But, uniquely, as the last survivor, he embodies them all.’ Patch, certainly, very much conformed to the traditional lore of the Great War: Owen’s Pity of War. In this sense, Patch very much became the talisman for those who expected nothing other than the image of the homogenised, usually over-sentimentalised, soldier. In this manner, the unquestioning reverence, coupled with a certain degree of pity, directed towards Patch also represented the singular problem of assessing the experience of the Tommy – the complication of veneration. ‘The noblest of all the generations has left us’, Gordon Brown remarked upon the death of Harry Patch in 2009. Of course, this could only have been said of Patch exactly because did express anti-war sentiment. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, when denouncing war became the foremost fashion for the trendy, uninformed orator of the glib remark, to have a Adrian Carton de Wiart type make a comment to the extent of admitting that ‘frankly I enjoyed the war’ would have thrown up an all too inconvenient contradiction to the current zeitgeist overtaking the Western World. Harry Patch therefore was not just the last, but quite criminally the only Tommy permitted to exist. That Britain allowed this, allowed itself to be persuaded into believing that war is entirely bad, has had far-reaching consequences – primarily that we are no longer so willing to fight for causes that rightfully demand the same courage, grit and determination that was displayed by the Tommies such as Patch during the First World War. The syrupy notion that we might turn our soldiers into victims has greatly hampered us in this task, however.

Today, the Western World has transmuted itself into a malaise of liberal impotence – where fighting a war is perfectly permissible on the condition that no one is killed. The British Left’s disgraceful stance over the Falkland Islands in 1882, that a democratic nation should not confront a fascist junta and retake the islands – negating one of the Left’s finest traditions of resistance against totalitarianism – was a clear sign of how far the rot had set in since 1918. This decay has only increased, the post-9/11 struggle against Islamic terrorism being naively portrayed in some quarters as, obtusely, Western imperialism. The liberal position on the current situation in Syria is, correspondingly, to observe the savage rape of a neighbour, night after night, but not to intervene because smashing down the door would itself be criminal – this is nothing other than moral cowardice. Thankfully, examples of our armed forces fighting hard and ruthlessly in foreign lands are not entirely exhausted, with British and American troops, with our Afghan and NATO allies, confronting and exacting a high toll on Islamic fascists in the mountains and opium fields of Afghanistan. Similarly, the recent French intervention in Mali is, too, a highly commendable example of moral and physical courage. Rubbishing concepts of duty, allegiance and, most of all, physical courage on the battlefield,  is the cheapest and most cowardly of all rebukes, as it delays the day, or even absolves the moment entirely, when we might ourselves have to stand up to the very same test that our ancestors passed so audaciously. And although there is no such thing as glory in the moment of battle itself, it is not true that war isn’t glorious. The concept of ‘glory’ is, rather, attributed by civilians to soldiers as a matter of justice for those who did indeed exhibit the great virtues of courage and self-sacrifice in the defence of the principles we hold dear. That the soldier, always the most modest of men, doesn’t think himself a glorious hero, but readily applies the title to his comrades, is perhaps as it should be; and indeed the most telling truth. If we could just allow ourselves the uncomfortable truth that many of our professional fighting men enjoy and relish the fight we would, in doing so, allow them to conduct their office without hindrance as the noblest of our country’s servants – the British Soldier.

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