The Obscenities of the Great War

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The killing, mutilation and gas poisoning of millions of soldiers on both sides had broken taboos and decisively blunted moral sensitivities. Auschwitz cannot be explained without reference to World War I.” – Yehuda Baueri

World War I brought about great political and strategic changes. We acknowledge the political and strategic links joining World Wars I and II, but we seldom acknowledge the link of trauma that ties the brutalities visited on the combatants of the first war to the systematic mass killings of civilians in the second. The impact of the Great War echoes strongly through the generations, but to understand its impact we need to remind ourselves of the conditions endured by combatants. This was like a holocaust of young men, a multinational holocaust which even enemy states shared in common. It was one of histories great obscenities akin to a genocide or the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, and it sowed the seeds of even greater future suffering.

The factors acting to derange the senses of the front line troops began even before enlistment with unrealistic, romantic and chauvinistic expectations of violence, combat and war;ii masculinity;iii and the martial prowess of their nation.iv As to the Great War itself, they genuinely expected it to be “over by Christmas”.v They, and those who were to remain home, felt that war would cleansevi and unite societyvii – renewing lost values and providing an “escape from modernity”.viii

In training troops were intentionally degraded, brutalised and stripped of individuality.ix Perhaps more importantly their training did next to nothing to prepare them for the realities of the front line, and very little to help them fight or survive.x

On arrival at the front they were confronted with overwhelming noisexi and disorientation in time and space,xii producing an immediate and lasting sense of befuddlement.xiii They had to contend with stench, filth, mud, vermin and, above all, cold.xiv They were constantly fatigued from hard labour at or behind the front line,xv they suffered chronic sleep deprivation exacerbated by the reversal of day/night patterns of activity in the front trenches.xvi They were malnourished in the field, and many had been malnourished in earlier life.xvii They were extremely prone to physical disease and were often treated punitively, cruelly or callously on falling ill.xviii They were starved of any, even basic, strategic informationxix and deprived, by physical realities, of a visual or tactical understanding of their situation – living in what Leed refers to as the “labyrinth”.xx Winter suggests that these factors caused “mental depression and physical sluggishness… from… lack of sleep combined with a total lack of information, which added to the lack of a sense of purpose.”xxi Their lives were expended with what can only be described as great profligacy. In these circumstances the front line soldier inevitably came to see some actions of military superiors and politicians (and by association the “home”) as either gratuitously idiotic or insane,xxii or as intentionally murderous.xxiii

The three greatest factors impacting the combatants’ psyches were the prevalences of fear, immobility and death. Leed emphasises the impact of immobility, contending that it destroyed any sense of identity as an “offensive” soldier.xxiv Psychiatric casualty rates certainly reflect the impact of static warfare.xxv This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that rates were lower during mobile war phases despite higher death and injury rates.xxvi On a more basic level than that of identity, however, soldiers were exposed to danger, provoking fear and adrenal response, and prevented from the active defence that both self-preservative cognition and biochemistry demanded. It is only too reasonable to expect that in these circumstances they would become neurasthenic and, as Aldington hinted, begin to morbidly fear fear itself.xxvii They were also constantly confronted with manifest death, the importance of which is shown by the centrality of encounters with corpses in both memoryxxviii and in the way combatants framed and interpreted the meaning of the war.xxix Killing could prompt guilt (although it should be remembered that only a small minority of infantry soldiers would have killed anyone). The loss of comrades could be a source of grief which, because of the necessarily close bonding of military units, caused “a large vertiginous emotional drain, and… a seemingly endless process of mourning.”xxx Combatants were radically desensitised, losing their normal reactions to both death and decay.xxxi Leed describes an instance where a soldier is blown by a shell onto the rotten stomach of an enemy, causing the excreta and rotten entrails of the corpse to enter his mouth – a single incident that illustrates the violation of profound values which confronted soldiers.xxxii The most damaging aspect of the confrontation with death was the reminder of one’s own mortality. In a war where front line soldiers were only too aware that they had little or no agency in their own self-preservation, each corpse represented the viewer’s own death save for a small sliver of fate or fortune. All agency and the disbursement of death was relegated to technology, the war-machine,xxxiii the soldiers were “unprotected by anything but cloth”.xxxiv They could not physically defend themselves and took refuge in superstitions talismans ritual and spells,xxxv largely abandoning established religion which offered only post-mortem salvation.xxxvi

The above is but a short list of some of the more prominent aspects of the front line that served to alienate and to enact profound psychic changes. These are two faces of the same coin – the war altered combatants but it was a “silent teacher” imparting a “secret which can never be communicated”.xxxvii Walter Benjamin noted that returning soldiers had “grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience.”xxxviii The incommunicability of experience could make home leave unbearable because by itself it could be so intensely alienating.xxxix

The “silence” of the front line soldier was exacerbated by their lack of a military “offensive” identity.xl Soldiers are meant to be killers, shooters, attackers – they are trained as such and people, even today, believe it is their role. This derangement is not merely one affecting the popular imagination and popular culture, but is entrenched even in the scholarship of the subject. Joanna Bourke opens An Intimate History of Killing with the sentence, “The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing.” However, although she seeks to include the imaginary in constructing the meaning of war to participants, the point is not sustained even by her own selected evidence and although she deals with the fear of death she does not draw a link between it and the interpretation of the act of killing.xli Denis Winter makes the point that “danger was the most crucial trigger of aggression and sustainer of it….” Thus death precedes and shapes the act of killing.xlii Also in his reconstruction of the experience of battle it is fear of death that preconditions the soldier so intensely that its release leads to an immediate sense of euphoria, but also of detachment and unreality, which could change into positive enjoyment.xliii As discussed below this can have seldom been linked to killing in reality, and the sequence would suggest that the killing imaginary, and the narrative conventions of killing, are the product of the fear of death and a way of reclaiming agency after profound feelings of helplessness. Bourke herself cites an example of euphoric sensations and coital associations, identical to those that she suggests are associated with killing, deriving from a situation of danger where there was no remote possibility of the subject killing anyone, nor did he envisage or imagine doing so.xliv Similarly David Grossman is utterly insistent on seeing an erotic aspect to the act of killing when, if the only evidence by which to judge this is that offered by Grossman, there is more to be gleaned about the predispositions of Grossman and Bourke than any true erotic element to killing.xlv

Whether eroticised or not, the fascination with the ground soldier’s lethal agency, their acts of killing, seriously interfere with our ability to understand the soldier’s situation and the long-term effects of immersion in this situation. In fiction it is hard to find an infantry protagonist who does not kill an enemy soldier at some stage. However in reality, most front line soldiers were not killed, and 58 per cent of deaths that did occur were caused by shellfire.xlvi Of the remainder snipers, machine-guns, accident, disease, gas, aircraft and other causes would have accounted for so many that, given the relatively even matching of forces, only a tiny percentage of infantry could have actually killed someone with rifle, bayonet or grenade. The role of the infantry was not to kill but to occupy space. This is a source of cognitive dissonance to the soldier who has been instilled with an “offensive” identity, but also a source of cognitive estrangement from civilians and the values of a “society at war”.xlvii

The front and the home were also polarised in their attitudes towards the enemy. Civilian hatred towards the enemy was frequently a source of bitter anger for those serving at the front.xlviii The front line soldiers tended to lack hatred towards the enemy and often felt identification or even empathy.xlix To Stevenson this arose from the fact that they were all “trapped in a killing machine by pressure from above”.l The hatred of the enemy, and the pro-war patriotism of the home front was a source of bitter alienation in itself,li greatly aggravated by a blithe ignorance of the horrors facing combatants and a frequent expectation that the soldier should conform to preconceptions and be actively desirous of combat.lii The home front’s enthusiasm for slaughter was not simply a matter of estrangement of perceptions and beliefs, it made them part of the “killing machine”, as much a part of the apparatus as the staff officers in the rear lines. Some soldiers felt that civilians were responsible for maliciously and knowingly sending young men to die for their own profit or enjoyment, deceiving them as to the nature of military life and the reality of war.liii To Sassoon war was a “dirty trick” on his generationliv perpetuated by the “callous complacence” of civilians.lv There was not only bitterness but immense disdain directed at the older generation.lvi Remarque writes of their “moral bankruptcy”, his protagonist is “forced to conclude that our generation is more honourable than theirs.”lvii It was strongly felt that those staying behind were profiting from suffering and death of the front line troops, be they “profiteers” or armaments workers.lviii

Even more acute than the anger felt towards elders was that felt towards women.lix Some held that they derived positive enjoyment from young men’s sufferings. Aldington went so far as to write that the news of a son’s death was “almost wholly erotic” to a mother and that “all the dying and wounds… [from] a safe distance… gave [women] a great kick….lx More commonly women were blamed as active recruiters, although not entirely without reason.lxi

Psychologically the world was primed for an unprecedented turn towards genocide. We cannot forget that the experiences of Great War combatants were diverse, but at the same time we would be extremely foolish not to acknowledge the singular historical significance of the unprecedented sharing of such extreme conditions among tens of millions of young men. Never before have so many from so many nations shared so much with each other that they did not share with the rest of humanity. The reactions were also diverse among returned servicemen. An societal embrace of pacifism was a natural reaction, often shared by veterans, but other brutalised men were all too ready to don the uniforms of paramilitary police or fascist militias. The resentment of civilian impunity worked its way into military doctrine. Three early advocates of mass aerial bombardment were Giulio Douhet (Italy), Hugh Trenchard (Britain), and Billy Mitchell (US). Douhet and Trenchard argued against the distinction between civilian and combatant, Mitchell was an advocate of incendiary bombing, and all three argued that mass bombing of urban areas would shorten wars, preventing the horrors of drawn out trench warfare.lxii Thus, even without recourse to Nazi racial theories, it became quite normal in some circles to think that the mass-murder of civilians was a normal and desirable part of warfare. The callousness with which war leaders had used young men in the Great War sowed the seeds of genocidal brutality for the next generation of war leaders. These leaders would lay waste to entire countries and collectively slaughter tens of millions of civilians.

iYehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982, pp 58-9, quoted in Eric Markusen and David Kopf, The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century. Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: 1995, p 30.

iiMichael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp 71-2.

iiiIbid p 30.

ivEric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p 40; J.G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p 37.

vDenis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War, London: Penguin, 1979, p 32.

viMichael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990, p 61.

viiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 44-5.

viiiIbid pp 58-72.

ixWinter, Death’s Men, pp 41-3. The destruction of individuality was also ipso facto the destruction of identity, or more specifically civilian identity, which was, in theory replaced with a less individual identity as a soldier. The problem, as we shall see, is that a soldier identity, as everyone understood it and as the military attempted to instil it, was totally untenable in the conditions of trench warfare (see below).

xIbid pp 36, 39-40.

xiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 126, 131.

xiiIbid pp 124-5; Winter, Death’s Men, p 101.

xiiiWinter, Death’s Men:, pp 82, 226; Leed, No Man’s Land, p 21.

xivWinter, Death’s Men, pp 95-8.

xvIbid p 86, David Stevenson, 1914-1918:The History of the First World War, London: Penguin 2004, p 185; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture, pp 76-8.

xviDenis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War, London: Penguin, 1979, p 100.

xviiIbid pp 30, 102; Jock Phillips, Nicholas Boyack, and E.P. Malone (eds), The Great Adventure: New Zealand Soldiers Describe the First World War, Wellington: Allen and Unwin, 1988, p 9; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 60.

xviiiWinter, Death’s Men, pp 99, 201-2.

xixFuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, pp 62-4.

xxLeed, No Man’s Land , pp 77-80.

xxiWinter, Death’s Men, p 100.

xxiiIbid, pp 213; Leed, No Man’s Land, p 99.

xxiiiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 106-7.

xxivIbid 180-6.

xxvJoanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare, London: Granta, 1999, p 249. See also note 8 above.

xxviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 215.

xxviiWinter, Death’s Men, p 133. Winter paraphrases Aldington as suggesting that men were ‘horribly afraid of seeming afraid’, however it is a reasonable inference to suggest that, given the risk of death or insanity that uncontrolled fear brought, they truly did fear fear. Such safety as there was against shelling required immobility, which required the control of fear. Again there are resonances with Catch-22.

xxviiiIbid p 181.

xxixIbid p 206-8. There is also the strong, if not cliché, narrative convention of the encounter with an enemy corpse prompting a realisation of the humanity of the enemy. For example, Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, London: Vintage, 2005, pp 153-9, wherein the protagonist is also confronted by a protracted death at his own hands.

xxxLeed, No Man’s Land, p 210.

xxxiJoanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p 77.

xxxiiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 19.

xxxiiiIbid pp 29-33.

xxxivJohn Keegan, The First World War, New York: Vintage, 2000, p 273.

xxxvLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 127-8; Winter, Death’s Men, p 118.

xxxviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 215.

xxxviiCharles Carrington quoted in Leed, No Man’s Land, p 12.

xxxviiiIbid p 209.

xxxixStevenson, 1914-1918, p 212.

xlLeed, No Man’s Land, p 113.

xliBourke, An Intimate History of Killing, pp 1-3.

xliiWinter, Death’s Men, p 216.

xliiiIbid, pp 179-81.

xlivBourke, An Intimate History of Killing, pp 150-1.

xlvDavid Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

xlviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 184.

xlviiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 110.

xlviiiIbid 106

xlixIbid p 107; in contrast Winter perceives more hatred, or rather ‘dislike’, but suggests that it seems to have been linked to the degree of danger and to have rapidly disappeared in time of truce, (Death’s Men, pp 209-13).

lStevenson, 1914-1918, p 92.

liWinter, Death’s Men, p 167.

liiFuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 17.

liiiAdams, The Great Adventure, pp 125-133; Leed, No Man’s Land, pp 206-7

livAdams, The Great Adventure, p 133.

lvLeed, No Man’s Land, p 207.

lviIbid p 74.

lviiRemarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, p 9.

lviiiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 206; Adams, The Great Adventure, p 116; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 60; Winter, Death’s Men, pp 167-8.

lixAdams, The Great Adventure, p 108.

lxIbid p 128. Women were psychologically mobilised for the war effort and part of this was an effort to consciously indoctrinate them into viewing the death of their loved one’s as a positive sacrifice and a source of satisfaction. It seems unlikely that women were quite so thrilled at losing their sons as Aldington suggests, but the very existence of widespread propaganda to that effect makes Aldington’s viewpoint seem less extreme. See Nicoletta F. Gullace, The Blood of our Sons: Men Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, p 63.

lxiDavid Stevenson, 1914-1918:The History of the First World War, London: Penguin 2004, p 292; Nicoletta F. Gullace, The Blood of our Sons: Men Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, pp 3-4, 53-60, 81-3.

lxiiEric Markusen and David Kopf, TheHolocaustandStrategicBombing:GenocideandTotalWarintheTwentiethCentury, Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1995, pp 201-2

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