Friday 18 September 2009

The unreturning army that was youth

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is best known now as one of the War Poets (specifically, World War I), and is generally studied either in high school or first-year university along with such of his peers as Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), and Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). I have both been taught some of the poetry of this "unreturning army" and have taught it myself, although I focused only on Sassoon and Owen in my own classroom.

Pat Barker's novel Regeneration is the first in a trilogy devoted to Sassoon, Owen, their psychiatrist Rivers (1864-1922), and the fictional character Billy Prior. Rivers' job is to rehabilitate soldiers suffering from severe shell-shock and what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as the result of a badly run campaign in the muddy hell that was WWI France.

Rivers doesn't seem to consider or place much stock in the terrible irony of this, but things become less morally comfortable for him when Sassoon is sent to his hospital to be "cured" of his apparently "insane" insistence that the war be ended immediately. His so-called pacifism is concisely expressed in his famous A Soldier's Declaration:
I am making this statement as an act of willful 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, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes 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 practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
This text was written in July 1917, and Sassoon only narrowly avoided being court martialed for disseminating it; it was due to the intervention of his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves (1895-1985) that he ended up in Craiglockhart to be "healed" by Rivers instead of in jail.

Rivers is a good man and his methods of rehabilitation infinitely more humane than the majority of his colleagues'; he's also, however, certain that returning to the war is the best option for these young men, in spite of the variety of psychosomatic illnesses they suffer from in unconscious attempts to save themselves from an utterly hopeless situation in the trenches.

Speaking with Sassoon over the months of the latter's stay in hospital, however, begins to make Rivers' confidence in the rightness of his job unravel. Sitting in church while on stress leave, the contemplation of the biblical stories being played out on the stained glass windows forces some painful realizations onto the doctor:
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. (p. 149)
What's painful and tragic about this increasing doubt in what he does is that Rivers nonetheless does not see or even try to see any way to behave any differently; he confronts his morally dubious role in the cycle of death and yet doesn't consider how he might if not break, at least briefly interrupt, that cycle. Perhaps he will do something startling in the next two books.

Which I will read, although Regeneration was as painful a reading experience as it was a satisfying one. I found Rivers' continued complicity almost too painful to bear. I usually prefer the narrative voice to remain morally neutral but in this case, it made the desperation of the soldiers who would unconsciously do literally any horrible thing to their own bodies not to be sent back, for they couldn't reconcile that desire to live with their sense of masculine duty, to be overwhelming. However, to have imposed some kind of moral bias into the narrative would have destroyed what made this book so powerful - its unflinching look at war without ever engaging in any of the sort of action scenes that can so easily be misused for pro-war, patriotic purposes.

I think Regeneration is a very, very good book; it's just not an easy or comfortable one. But it can't all be Ysabel and making fun of lazy editors can it?


Heidenkind said...

Very timely post, Colleen--I just started a book that takes place in WWII and one of the characters is huge fan of both Sassoon and Owen. I'd never even heard of them, since my familiarity with poetry pretty much stops after 1898. They sound incredible, though--I may have to read some their work.

As for the novel, it sounds a bit gruesome, in all honesty. =/

Bookphilia said...

It's kind of gruesome but the moral dilemma is much more so than the physical injuries, etc that are described. It's also very good. I think it's worth reading in spite of the discomfort it might cause?

What's the book you've begun about WWII? I'm also now reading a book about WWII but it's Japanese and so Sassoon and Owen are nowhere to be seen. :)

Unknown said...

Never heard of either the author or the poet, but it sounds intriguing. And speaking of war, I think I'm getting closer with Mishima and his reincarnations to WW2 (having just finished 'Runaway Horses'!).

Heidenkind said...

It's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I'm reading it for a book club, but it's pretty good.

Bookphilia said...

Tony: Runaway Horses is my favourite in the tetralogy! Glad you're enjoying.

heidenkind: I love your phraseology here: "I'm reading it for a book club, ***but*** it's pretty good." Intentional?

pol said...

Nice post Colleen. I've read the whole trilogy but I did it all in one go. And then I watched the movie (joint NFB/Scottish FB) with that guy from Hackers who was linked to Angelina back then who's name I can never remember. I think he's one of those 3 name guys. As for the rest - it continues to be very strong and poignant and tragic and Sassoon and Owen are great characters. Also there will be a lot of hot gay sex. Or at least very graphic gay sex. Speaking of graphic gay sex - I could point you toward a fun fantasy novel with a gay protagonist if you're interested in genre-defying...whatever you call it...

Bookphilia said...

Pol: I will definitely read the rest of the trilogy but not likely for awhile; I'm allergic to reading too many books by the same author too close together.

I know the actor you mean; he played Sick Boy in Trainspotting and was the titular character of that short-lived tv show, Eli Stone.

And yes, please recommend the fantasy with gay sex.