Friday, 13 January 2012

Literature that promotes war

First World War poetry that condemns the waste and brutality of war is amongst the most powerful, passionate and heartfelt poetry ever written. Modern readers of Owen or Sassoon, Rosenberg, Graves or Blunden would be forgiven for thinking that the relationship between poetry and war is one way: poetry dissects and condemns war. Yet not all poetry is the same. Over the centuries much has been written that actively promotes war and it is interesting to consider how it has done so. In fact poets have used a wide range of techniques and approaches and have produced literature that is often as fine and powerful and moving as that which condemns war.

Not always of course. There is a class of propagandist poetry that I find simplistic, crass and distasteful and I do not believe that this is simply because I have been corrupted by too much Wilfrid Owen. This is 'poetry' which plays on base human (male) emotions. It presents war as a glorious exciting game in which the lucky participant can gain prestige and respect and machismo or, if he ducks out, can be forever branded a coward. Jessie Pope actually entitled one such poem Who's For the Game? and referred to war as "The red crashing game of the fight." This sort of appeal to heroism can make reference to the dangers of war on occasion, as in Henry Newbolt's Vitae Lampada (or "Play up, play up, and play the game") in which "The sand of the Desert is sodden red" because it is framed in the heroic fantasy world of boys' imaginations.

However such poetry can be even more explicit about the shame and ignominy that will be visited on anyone who fails to join in. A classic example is Harold Begbie's Fall In which traces this ignominy in imagination through the reader's entire life. In the first verse he asks "But what will you lack when your mate goes by/With a girl who cuts you dead?" then in the second (of the reader's future children) "But where will you look when they give you the glance/That tells you they know you funked." Finally the reader is asked to imagine an old age when his neighbours are talking about their part in the War and he asks "Will you slink away, as if from a blow/Your old head shamed and bent?"

There is another sort of literature that is less explicit about either the violence of war or the consequences of not participating in it. This is the approach that couches the whole enterprise in a sort of warm glow of nobility and patriotism and glory. A classic example is Rupert Brooke's the Soldier but it is interesting that Owen's 1914, written of course before he went to war, is not that different. It frames the conflict as being on a cosmic scale and having a divine purpose, since "the grain of human Autumn rots" and there is a "need/Of sowings for a new Spring, and blood for seed." It is fascinating to consider whether Brooke's attitudes would have changed as radically as Owen's had he survived to reach Galipoli.

Perhaps two of the most famous passages that promote war are from Shakespeare's Henry V, though it must of course be remembered that this is a character speaking not Shakespeare himself. The "Once more unto the breach" speech emphasises the glorious action and the "This day is called the feast of Crispian" focuses more on the glory that will come afterwards, but what is interesting is the emphasis both give to war as a means of proving and bettering oneself. Both speeches present an opportunity to the listeners to establish and augment not just their sense of self-worth but their very standing in society through the medium of war. In the first Henry tells his listeners to "Be copy now to men of grosser blood,/And teach them how to war," and in the second he goes further. Referring to the soldiers as his "band of brothers" he says
"For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
This may sound like mere rabble-rousing today but Henry precedes this call with a list of names, all of whom Shakespeare's audience would know had achived preferment and advantage through their exploits at war.

Of course modern warmongers cannot offer such meteoric social advancement and it is extraordinary to compare Henry's speech, as fictionalised by Shakespeare, with those of that great poet of the second World War, Winston Churchill. In his speeches he is absolutely explicit that "I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat." What is remarkable on rereading them today is not just their poetry and power but their uncompromising bleakness. He uses much of the same appeal to grand philosphical ideas of nobility as Brooke and the early Owen but puts much more emphasis on the darkness he feels he is combatting, as for instance when he warns that without war "we will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science." His praise of the Battle of Britain pilots has, in its "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" has some of the same appeal to simple pride as Henry's "He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,/Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named," and he offers the entire population a taste of that heroism in his famous rallying call "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" What is striking however is how little he sugar-coats the pill. His response to the significant victories of late 1942 was "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

What I want to bring out from the Churchill speeches however is the extent to which he understood and learned from the poetry of the First World War. He clearly saw how poetry and great literature had been appropriated by the anti-War lobby and he could no longer rely on either the jingoistic simplifications of Begbie or Pope or the bland philosophising of Brooke. So he used his formidable poetic talents not to disguise the reality of war nor to trivialise it but to bring it alive in his readers' imaginations. This was a risky strategy in retrospect: how many prime ministers today would be prepared to state so starkly how little hope he offered and what bleak and terrifying futures he foresaw? Yet it worked. Read for instance the following rallying call to the British people at a time in 1940 when the prospects for victory looked very slim:
"And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach, and face the worst that the tyrant's might and enmity can do. Bearing ourselves humbly before God, but conscious that we serve an unfolding purpose, we are ready to defend our native land against the invasion by which it is threatened. We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone. Here in this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title-deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization; here, girt about by the seas and oceans where the Navy reigns; shielded from above by the prowess and devotion of our airmen-we await undismayed the impending assault. Perhaps it will come tonight. Perhaps it will come next week. Perhaps it will never come. We must show ourselves equally capable of meeting a sudden violent shock or-what is perhaps a harder test-a prolonged vigil. But be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy-we shall ask for none."
The essence of his message is both slim and bleak. He is offering little hope to the British people and giving them no real idea of what the future may hold. All that he can give them is poetry, so that is what they get.

As an avowed pacifist, and one who is appalled for instance by what Allied bombers did to Dresden under Churchill's orders, I find it difficult to decide what I feel about Churchill's wartime speeches. That they were great literature is beyond doubt and they are a world away from the pro-War literature of the First World War. It is also possible that without them Britain would have collapsed and Hitler triumphed. Yet they are without doubt pieces of literature that promote War. So how can I with equanimity recognise their power?

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