In the course of writing my book Killing (due out in July), I read a lot of the literature from the First World War. Or re-read, I guess, cos you can’t help but encounter much of it (or at least Owen and perhaps Sassoon) in high school. But looking at it again, I was struck by how the forms used by the Great War writers have been reappropriated to neutralise their content. Take Owen’s ‘Dulce et decorum est’, the one poem everyone studies. These days, there’s nothing shocking about the description of men dying horribly in a gas attack. Indeed, the Anzac Day columns appearing in this weekend’s newspapers don’t attempt to hide the horrors of war. If anything, they do the opposite, with a plethora descriptions of shell shock and trenchfoot and corpses on barbed wire and the rest of it. Yet, for the most part, they draw entirely the opposite conclusion to Owen. They emphasise the horrors to emphasise Anzac heroism, whereas Owen’s point was that in modern war heroism became impossible. That was ‘the old lie’, after all — the idea that anything great or glorious came from dying on the battlefield.
Anyway, that’s kind of what my book’s about so I don’t want to labour the point here. But reading the papers this morning I couldn’t help but think about Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was — for a brief period, at least — the most political of the English war poets, to the point where you wonder if he’d actually be allowed to participate in the commemoration today. Here, for instance, is his famous ‘Declaration‘:
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
It’s striking how contemporary it all sounds. When Sassoon talks about the purposes of the war, he reminds us not simply about the tangled machinations behind the Great War (is it not somewhat remarkable that, despite the millions of words produced each Anzac Day, almost no-one today can tell you what the conflict was actually about?) but, inevitably, about the lies behind Iraq. Sassoon’s now safely canonical but imagine if a serving officer wrote the lines above about, say, Afghanistan. Would he be taught to schoolchildren? Would he be allowed to march?
Or consider ‘Fight to a finish’, the title of which might be an article in the Australian about Iraq. In this poem, Sassoon describes something very like the contemporary Anzac Day.
The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying,
And hear the music of returning feet.
‘Of all the thrills and ardours War has brought,
This moment is the finest.’ (So they thought.)
And how does the poem end?
I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.
Again, imagine a contemporary Sassoon, a soldier who denounced the yellow press for glorifying war ceremonies and then talked about physically attacking the warmongers in parliament. Would he be allowed to march? Of course not! In 2009, Sassoon would be lucky to escape anti-terrorism legislation.