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256 pages, Paperback
First published May 30, 1991
“If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person.”This is war. This is not honor. This is not glory. This is not right. This is not just. This is not a game played with lives and loves and delineations of mind and body, a board set with pieces played on the country level for some concept of 'stability' that takes very little to destabilize. This is war.
-Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones
Nothing can justify this, he'd thought. Nothing nothing nothing.Who knows.
When I’m asleep, dreaming and drowsed and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Rumble and drone and bellow overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bead.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
‘Why are you here with all your watches ended?
‘From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the line.’
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
‘When are you going back to them again?
‘Are they not still your brothers through our blood?’
-Siegfried Sassoon, 'Sick Leave'
Sometimes, in the trenches, you get the sense of something, ancient. One trench we held, it had skulls in the side, embedded, like mushrooms. It was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough's army, than to think they'd been alive a year ago. It was as if all the other wars had distilled themselves into this war, and that made it something you almost can't challenge. It's like a very deep voice, saying: 'Run along, little man, be glad you've survived'.
The way I see it, when you put the uniform on, in effect you sign a contract. And you don't back out of a contract merely because you've changed your mind. You can still speak up for your principles, you can still argue against the ones you're being made to fight for, but in the end you do the job.
This reinforced Rivers’s view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.
It was... the Great White God de-throned, I suppose. Because we did, we quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw that we weren't the measure of all things, but that there was no measure.
You know you're walking around with a mask on, and you desperately want to take it off and you can't because everybody else thinks it's your face.
And as soon as you accepted that the man’s breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than his own innate weakness, then inevitably the war became the issue. And the therapy was a test, not only of the genuineness of the individual’s symptoms, but also of the validity of the demands the war was making on him. Rivers had survived partly by suppressing his awareness of this. But then along came Sassoon and made the justifiability of the war a matter for constant, open debate, and that suppression was no longer possible.
Bryce waited for Rivers to finish reading before he spoke again. 'The "S" stands for "Siegfried". Apparently, that was better left out.'The two main characters are introduced. Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967), the British poet,
'And I'm sure he was right.' Rivers folded the paper and ran his fingertips along the edge. 'So they're sending him here?'
Bryce smiled. 'Oh, I think it's rather more specific than that. They're sending him to you.'
The novel is thematically complex, exploring the effect of the War on identity, masculinity, and social structure. The novel draws extensively on period psychological practices, emphasising River's research as well as Freudian psychology. In the novel Barker enters a particular tradition of representing the experience of World War I in literature: many critics compare the novel to other World War I novels, especially those written by women writers interested in the domestic repercussions of the war, including Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Barker both drew on those texts of the period that initially inspired her and makes references to a number of other literary and cultural works and events. These give an impression of historical realism, even though Barker tends to refute the claim that the novel is "historical fiction".
"They'd been trained to identify emotional repression, as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men."
"They (women) seemed to have changed so much during the war, to have expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into a smaller and smaller space."
“…A few shells, a few corpses, and you’ve lost heart.”
“How many corpses?”
“The point is . . . “
“The point is 102,000 last month alone. You’re right, I am obsessed, I never forget it for a second, and neither should you, Robert, if you had any real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce the way you do.”
Graves flushed with anger. “I’m sorry you think that. I should hate to think I’m a coward. I believe in keeping my word. You agreed to serve, Siegfried. Nobody’s asking you to change your opinions, or even to keep quiet about them, but you agreed to serve, and if you want the respect of the kind of people you’re trying to influence – the Bobbies and the Tommies – you’ve got to be seen to keep your word. They won’t understand if you turn around in the middle of the war and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind.” To them, that’s just bad form. They’ll say you’re not behaving like a gentleman – and that’s the worst thing they can say about anybody.”
There are many important themes in the book including class distinctions and the importance of poetry, but the most important one is a moral issue: for what are these men being regenerated? The answer is clear: to go back to France and fight again.
Obvious choices for the east window: the two bloody bargains on which a civilization claims to be based. The bargain, Rivers thought, looking at Abraham and Isaac. The one on which all patriarchal societies are founded. If you, who are young and strong, will obey me, who am old and weak, even to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice your life, then in the course of time you will peacefully inherit, and be able to exact the same obedience from your sons. Only we’re breaking the bargain, Rivers thought. All over northern France, at this very moment, in trenches and dugouts and flooded shell-holes, the inheritors were dying, not one by one, while old men, and women of all ages, gathered together and sang hymns.
. . .
A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic and unquestioning allegiance. Perhaps the rebellion of the old might count for rather more than the rebellion of the young. Certainly poor Siegfried’s rebellion hadn’t counted for much, though he reminded himself that he couldn’t know that. It had been a completely honest action and such actions are seeds carried on the wind. Nobody can tell where, or in what circumstances, they will bear fruit.
How on earth was Siegfried going to manage in France? His opposition to the war had not changed. If anything it had hardened. And to go back to fight, believing as he did, would be to encounter internal divisions far deeper than anything he’d experienced before. Siegfried’s ‘solution’ was to tell himself that he was going back only to look after some men, but that formula would not survive the realities of France. However devoted to his men’s welfare a platoon commander might be, in the end her is there to kill, and to train other people to kill. Poetry and pacifism are a strange preparation for that role. Though Siegfried has performed it before, and with conspicuous success. But then his hatred of the war had not been as fully fledged, as articulate, as it was now.
It was a dilemma with one very obvious way out. Rivers knew, though he had never voiced his knowledge, that Sassoon was going back with the intention of being killed. Partly, no doubt, this was a youthful self-dramatization. I’ll show them. They’ll be sorry. But underneath that, Rivers felt there was a genuine and very deep desire for death.
And if death were to be denied? Then he might well break down. A real breakdown this time.
'I don't know what I am. But I do know I wouldn't want a f-faith that couldn't face the facts.' (p83)British society was very class conscious so it is ironic that all classes were forced to share the same trenches.
'. . . if I were going to call myself a Christian, I'd have to call myself a pacifist as well. I don't think it's possible to c-call youself a C-Christian and . . . and j-just leave out the awkward bits.' (p83)
"One of the paradoxes of the war -- one of the many -- was that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was . . . domestic. Caring. As Layard would undoubtedly have said, maternal. And that was the only trick the war had played. Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They'd been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure -- the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they'd devoured as boys -- consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. (p107)I found the following observation interesting because it relates war time mental breakdowns among men with those experiences by women during peace time:
"Pilots, though they did indeed break down, did so less frequently and usually less severely than the men who manned observation balloons. They, floating helplessly above the battlefields, unable either to avoid attack or to defend themselves effectively against it, showed the highest incidence of breakdown of any service. Even including infantry officers. This reinforced Rivers’s view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace."(p222)Some of the psychiatric treatment methods used a hundred years ago are more painful to read about than the battle experiences. It's pretty well summarized by the following quote where a doctor is summarizing his philosophy of treatment:
". . . The last thing these patients need is a sympathetic audience."(p228)Thus treatment methods include electrical shock and cigarette burns applied to the tongue.