Doomed lives: The thinking man on the battlefront

Doomed lives: The thinking man on the battlefront

By KARTHIK VENKATESH | | 28 January, 2017
Rupert Brooke, The Soldier, Julian Grenfell, Dulce et Decorum Est, Isaac Rosenberg, On Receiving News of the War
British poet Rupert Brooke.
Some of the greatest poets of the 20th century across the Western world drew inspiration from the horrors of war, of which many had first-hand experience, writes Karthik Venkatesh.

Soldiers’ voices: glory and sadness

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.

       — From ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke

When Rupert Brooke penned these lines in November and December 1914, the First World War was barely a few months old. Expectations still ran that the war would be over by Christmas. Consequently, patriotic feelings ran high. Brooke’s sentiments were akin to what the hero of the American Revolution, Nathan Hale (1755-76) is reputed to have said before being hung: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Brooke, along with Julian Grenfell, was among the war poets who felt compelled to volunteer in the initial days of the war out of a sense of patriotic duty. They truly believed that they were on the right side and their motivation was a better and more just world. Valourising the patriotic creed was their poetry’s highest calling. Both Grenfell and Brooke fell in 1915, among the early lot of England’s to be mowed down by the war machine. England mourned the death of its finest, but held close to the myth that it was for a great and noble cause.

In time, the face of war darkened and so did the face of the poetry that it inspired.

On 4 November 1918, a 25-year-old man, a decorated soldier named Wilfred Owen was killed leading his men across the Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors in France. Barely a week later on 11 November, World War I formally ended — Armistice Day.

In 1917, a year before his death, Owen was at a medical facility in Edinburgh recovering from shell-shock. There, he had time to muse on the war and the price it had extracted from youth. His poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” — with its blistering lines: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/ Only the monstrous anger of the guns” — was written then.

Owen’s most celebrated poem was “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The title is taken from the first words of a Latin saying which means that it is sweet and right to die for your country.

Owen thought differently. He had experienced war first-hand. From the outside, it appeared a glorious exercise. But on the front, with youth becoming little more than cannon-fodder, it was different. Owen denounced the saying “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” as nothing more than
“an old lie”.

Another poet who never quite bought into the glorification of war was Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). Of Lithuanian Jewish stock and a resident of London’s poorer area — the East End — Rosenberg’s world was different from the wealthy circles frequented by Brooke, Grenfell and even Owen. His parents were poor immigrants who had to endure much hardship.

Rosenberg who showed much promise as a student received an excellent education in the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1914, he relocated to the warmer climes of South Africa hoping to cure his chronic bronchitis. Unlike others, Rosenberg was critical of the war from the very beginning. His “On Receiving News of the War”, written in 1914, speaks gravely of what is to come. In a personal letter, Rosenberg described his attitude towards war thus: “I never joined the army for patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over.” Rosenberg fell on 1 April 1918, a few months
before Owen.

Another literary figure who chronicled war’s horrors was Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Disgusted at the turn the war was taking, Sassoon wrote a bitter critique in July 1917 called “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”.

“I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest,” the declaration bluntly stated. It continued: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insecurities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”

Sassoon, like Owen and Rosenberg, was stating his opposition to the constant glorification of the martyrdom and sacrifice that was drowning the voices urging the government in England then to seek peace. Soldiers ought not to be vehicles for your publicity-seeking, was his blunt opinion.

In early 1967, Captain Howard Levy, an army doctor refused to teach the Green Berets, an elite military unit. He said they were “murderers of women and children” and “killers of peasants”.

That the First World War inspired such angst was not surprising. It was the world’s first “industrial war” featuring for the first time killing machines like the tank and the machine gun, as also aerial bombing and the use of poison gas to inflict large-scale damage.

Wars in other countries have inspired similar outpourings of dissent and anger at the conduct of policy by politicians. In 1964, the USA was initially able to gather a modicum of public support for the war in Vietnam. America and Americans were wary of the “reds” who threatened their “way of life”. In time, however, this would change.

This being a time when military service was compulsory in America, young men, many of them barely out of high school, were sent to the war front, often with rudimentary training, and with disastrous results. When the body bags began to pile up, the public at large lost its fervour. The anti-war protests began to increase.

Soldiers who were in the thick of action began to express their deep misgivings. In early 1967, Captain Howard Levy, an army doctor, refused to teach the Green Berets, an elite military unit. He said they were “murderers of women and children”, and “killers of peasants”.

Among the more unusual protests waged was by an 18-year-old soldier named Ray Kroll. Hailing from a poor family, Kroll had been tricked into joining the army. Charged with drunkenness, he was given the choice of jail or enlisting. Kroll signed up, but then decided he did not want to go. He sought sanctuary in a church where a thousand Boston University students maintained a vigil. The protest was broken up and Kroll was hauled to military prison. From the prison, he wrote to friends, “I ain’t gonna kill; it’s against my will…”

On 9 November, 1969, 1,365 GIs signed a full-page ad in the New York Times that criticised the war and defended the civil liberties of soldiers to protest. This was a courageous thing to do since the soldiers were sure to suffer harassment or punishment for their participation. Around the same time, the Moratorium protests took place in Washington D.C. that called for an end to
the war.

The Vietnam War was bitterly opposed by many popular figures, too. The boxer Muhammad Ali, an anti-establishment figure famous for his pithy assessments of political situations, had this to say: “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger.” He was underlining America’s poor record with regard to its treatment of its black minority. Ali refused to do military duty preferring prison time instead.

The image of the selfless and unthinking soldier-sentinel standing guard at the border in sunshine and rain, it appears, is only partly true. As examples that surfaced on social media this week aptly illustrate, soldiers are prone to viewing their conditions with a critical eye. They have a realistic view of their circumstances and are more than aware of what is being swept under the carpet, both materially in terms of rations and other things to do with their daily life, as also of political machinations that force them to endanger their life and limb.

Soldiers think, still they are. That is the commendable thing.

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