Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword?

Assess the merits of Wilfred Owen as a teacher about the nature of war.

“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

- Wilfred Owen

“Oh! What a whingeing war!”

- Correlli Barnett

Anyone trying to assess the merits of Wilfred Owen as a teacher of the nature of war is immediately faced with a conceptual quandary. Classic works that explicitly attempt to deal with the nature of war itself can be counted on the fingers of one hand. When thinking about the nature of war, the names that spring to mind tend to be Clausewitz and Sunzi, not Wilfred Owen. While a semantic debate regarding whether or not Owen’s poetry begins to address anything regarding the “nature” of war in a meaningful way is beyond the scope of this work, it is worth noting that the enduring value of texts such as the Art of War and On War rests largely on their philosophical nature and arguments formed from the consideration of war at its highest level, in clear contrast to Owen’s largely tactical focus.

Before addressing in more detail the value and limitations of the Owen canon, it is important to recognise some generally applicable points regarding the limitations of Owen’s chosen medium, poetry. Unlike a journal or diary, poetry does not represent a continuous record of life at war. It lends itself to selectivity and the poet rarely focuses upon the humdrum, even though anything other than the humdrum may be unrepresentative. It is a widely accepted truth that the experience of war as a frontline soldier is ninety per cent boredom and ten per cent sheer terror. War poetry tends to represent the opposite of a heavily censored horror film – the tedious filler ends up on the cutting room floor and the reader is instead presented with concentrated essence of sheer terror. This tends to be in the nature of the beast and Owen is certainly guilty of it. In reality, most of the Great War infantryman’s time was spent out of the line and by no means all of his time at the front would be spent in anything approaching immediate mortal danger.[1] The popularity of poetry as a medium for expression among the best known of the Great War authors may well account for the widely held perception that the Great War saw significantly more intensive action for the infantryman than the Second World War, when in fact – at least in Burma and North West Europe – the reverse is true.

Poetry also almost invariably focuses on life at the level of the poor bloody infantry. The poetry connoisseur would search in van (if inclined to search at all) for poems dealing with logistics supply, staff officers mulling over maps and troops dispositions (except as pertaining to grotesque cock-ups leading to wholesale slaughter at the sharp end) and politicians trying to formulate a viable grand strategy. This results in the existing danger of an unrepresentative portrayal of frontline life being compounded by the fact that anyone relying on the work of the war poets for enlightenment will be operating with source material entirely lacking in meaningful context. While many of the accusations levelled at the war poets as a group by Correlli Barnett may be excessively harsh, his criticism of their limited ability to place the frontline experience in any broader strategic context is undoubtedly justified.[2] Echoing Brian Bond, the last word on the overall flaws of the war poetry heritage perhaps deserves to be given to the distinguished military historian Cyril Falls:

Every sector becomes a bad one; every working party is shot to pieces; if a man is killed or wounded, his brains or his entrails always protrude from his body; no one ever seems to have a rest. Attacks succeed one another with lightning rapidity. The soldier is presented as a depressed and mournful spectre helplessly wandering about until death brought his miseries to an end.

Taking all this into account, it is important to place Owen’s work within a specific context. In spite of his enormous popularity today, Owen’s work languished in obscurity until the early 1930s. During this period, other works sold relatively well. Rupert Brooke, whose works are now widely viewed as anachronistic and quaint, was a household name. There is little evidence that Great War veterans turned to Owen as the authentic voice of their war experience. Large numbers of personal testimonies from veterans in the form of prose and poetry appeared In the interwar years and a majority of the works that appeared were either broadly positive or at least prepared to acknowledge that a tough war had been fought for worthwhile ends.[4] The fact that most of these works have since lapsed into obscurity arguably says more about the prejudices of the modern readership than it does about the views of those who served. Of those works that have endured, a number that are commonly interpreted by modern audiences as pacifistic were, in fact, intended as nothing of the sort. Both R.C. Sheriff and Robert Graves took great exception to what they saw as the hijacking of their work for political purposes – often by those of later generations who had actually seen nothing of the Great War, or any other war for that matter.[5] In fact, Owen’s popularity has come in two distinct waves, the first taking place during the 1930s, the second beginning in the 1960s and lasting until the present day. It is at least arguable that the first wave, and beyond doubt in the second, that those most eager to devour Wilfred Owen’s poetry were people who had not themselves served in uniform. While Barnett’s tendency to blame appeasement on the war poets takes things too far, it is hardly a coincidence that the periods during which Wilfred Owen has been most popular and iconic have been periods in which pacifism has been a strong force on the political scene.[6]

Whether Owen would approve of this is impossible to say. Therein lies much of the problem. In many ways, the character of Wilfred Owen could not have been better constructed to appeal to the Western liberal political conscience if he had been the product of a Hollywood screenwriter’s fevered imagination: Young, young and dead, gay and by turns troubled, ferociously brave, neurotic, conscientious and emotional. He possessed a highly developed social conscience prior to the war and was prone to nervous conditions to the extent that he was, arguably, damaged goods before he even reached the front lines. He had the opportunity to sit out the war for good and did not take it, returning to lead his men in his capacity as a junior officer (his motivation is unclear – suggested reasons range from a sense of shame and survivors’ guilt to the far from implausible claim that he was in love with his batman – though his actions have numerous parallels throughout history). He is an enormously sympathetic and admirable figure (as Barnett willingly concedes), but hardly representative of his generation.[7] Unfortunately, in a world in which the casual student of history is increasingly disinclined to take the trouble not to impose modern mindsets, mores and values on historical events, Owen represents an open goal for those who insist upon viewing the Great War through the prism of contemporary prejudices and preconceptions. In its most benign manifestation this merely leads to rather bad history. At worst, the apocalyptic social consequences postulated by Correlli Barnett lurk on the horizon.

It is important to qualify what appears to be an overwhelmingly condemnatory and negative analysis. Even those least inclined to make relativist judgements must acknowledge that Owen’s experiences and interpretations are as valid in and of themselves as any of those who served. The problem arises when his work is not placed in any broader context and when alternative viewpoints are ignored or not accepted as legitimate. Certainly, within the British educational system there is a tendency to see Owen (and Siegfried Sassoon, his friend and contemporary) as the “authentic” voice of the Great War. Of course, in reality there is no good reason for Owen to be seen as more valid and legitimate than, for example, Ernst Junger, a German stormtrooper who, in spite of losing large numbers of comrades and serving in a unit that by its very nature (contrary to popular belief) took horrendous casualties in action as a matter of course, considered war to be one of the most splendid and ennobling activities available to mankind. But here we come back to Owen as a focus for our contemporary values. Acknowledging Junger – with his social Darwinism, militarism and general lip-smacking relish for violence – as a legitimate voice on a par with Wilfred Owen is a deeply uncomfortable prospect that raises disturbing questions about human nature. But a rigorous examination of the experience of the infantryman in general and the Great War soldier in the frontline in particular requires that we engage with the Jungers as well as the Owens. In fact, as it happens Junger was in his way no more representative than Wilfred Owen – most of those who served in the Great War fell into a broad spectrum that runs between the two, both in terms of experience and in terms of attitude. The key point is that engaging only with those whose views rest easy on the stomach will result in understanding nothing.

The pervasive influence of Owen and his contemporaries on the teaching of the Great War was thrown into sharp relief in a lecture given by Dr Barrie Paskins on Thursday September 11th 2004, in which, in response to questions regarding the teaching of the work of Wilfred Owen in schools, the audience – which represented a generally well-informed grouping – responded in an overwhelmingly positive manner, with a number of contributors asserting that Owen’s poetry was of exceptional importance as it demonstrated the reality of war in the trenches. There was only one dissenting voice. In reality, the work of Wilfred Owen reveals no fundamental truth. Wilfred Owen was no Universal Soldier – in no small part because there are no Universal Soldiers. His memory does not deserve denigration but unless the limitations of his work as source materials are clearly acknowledged and unless every care is taken to place the work and the man in an accurate historical context it is likely that Owen’s legacy will continue to generate more heat than light.

[1] Sheffield (2001), pp.124-125

[2] Barnett (2002), p.434

[3] Falls, Cyril, War Books, preface, pp. xi. Quoted in Bond (2002), p.33

[4] Bond (2002), pp.28-29

[5] Bond (2002), pp.34-35

[6] Barnett (2002), pp.429-434

[7] Barnett (2002), p.429 footnote


Bond, Brian (2002), The Unquiet Western Front: Britain's Role in Literature and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Barnett, Correlli (2002), The Collapse of British Power (London: Pan Macmillan)
Beckett, Ian F.W. (2001), The Great War 1914-1918 (Harlow: Pearson)
Sheffield, Gary (2001), Forgotten Victory: The First World War, Myths and Realities (London: Headline Publishing)
Black, Jeremy (2004), Rethinking Military History ( London: Routledge)
Fussell, Paul (1975), The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: OUP)
Cecil, Hugh and Liddle, Peter, eds. (1996), Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced (London: Pen and Sword)
Hynes, Samuel (1990), A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: Bodley Head)


Anonymous D. F.Fleming said...

This is a very interesting and cogent piece (as is the next post on Kipling). Certainly, from a military historian’s perspective, the idea that Owen’s poetry encapsulates the ‘nature’ of the Great War is problematic at best. As you (and others) have pointed out, his work is not even representative of literature written by soldiers during that conflict. But he’s not exactly a wild card, either. For instance Sassoon, who of course knew and influenced Owen, wrote even more explicitly ‘disillusioned’ and anti-war poetry, though he was bellicose enough in his actions.
So why do so many view Owen as the authentic voice of the war? To begin with, people who treat Owen’s poetry as iconic start from presuppositions very different from yours. The basic standpoint for your critique seems to be what I would call ‘social history of combat.’ In this approach, the ‘nature’ of the Great War depends on the actual experience and attitudes of those involved in fighting it, as best we can reconstruct these from a variety of evidence. Scholarship in this vein recognizes that the war experience was in multifarious (‘the myriad faces of war’) but tends to emphasize the views and experiences of the majority, rather than that of unusual individuals. From this point of view, Owen is a lousy source. As you note, his poetry emphasizes the front line, not the rear, and moments of high emotional charge, not routine and boredom. His writings do not typify either lived experience or most soldiers’ attitudes.
Your opponents don’t share this outlook. My guess would be that they are for the most part students of literature, not historians. They are uninterested in the majority response to the Great War; Owen attracts their attention precisely because he is an extraordinary writer who expressed himself better than almost any of his compatriots. He has some competition, of course, including heavy-hitters like Brooke whose poetry cannot be cast as anti-war. But the pains some scholars have taken to show that most British World War I poetry is very traditional and patriotic (and for that matter not written by soldiers) is wasted effort, from the literary critic’s point of view.(1) To use a bad analogy, it’s as though one afternoon a novice art class and Van Gogh had painted the same landscape. The art students’ paintings would resemble each other, and the terrain, more than Van Gogh’s would resemble either. But would you expect an art critic to care, or to prefer the students’ compositions? It’s easy to imagine an art historian saying that Van Gogh had captured the ‘nature’ of the scene, and the others had not—just as literary scholars might say that Owen had captured the ‘nature’ of World War I. For them, the ‘truth’ about the war is aesthetic, not historical.
Framed this way, the disagreement seems irreconcilable and, from the historian’s viewpoint, not very important. Would military historians be upset by an art critic claiming that Goya’s prints revealed the ‘true nature’ of the Peninsular War? Wouldn’t they simply read the art scholar’s analysis for insights they could use to understand Goya’s work and ignore the rest? So why is there so much upset among military historians about some literary critics’ view of the Great War? Some may arise from those critics apparently impersonating historians and claiming to tell the ‘historical truth’ about the war. Fussell has been accused of this, and in the epilogue to _The Great War and Modern Memory_ he certainly takes pains to associate himself with historians like Martin Gilbert and to stress his archival research, though still being careful to claim that he wrote “not a history but an elegiac commentary” or “a book in which historical data was called upon to enhance the elegiac effect.”(2) Some of the upset seems to stem from military historians being unwilling to admit that other disciplines, and other genres of writing, have different interests and approaches from their own. Thus, Bond (following Corelli Barnett) takes Sassoon and others to task for not facing “the complex issues of military strategy, foreign policy, and diplomacy,” as though one could do this in a memoir of service as a junior infantry officer.(3)
Neither of these factors, in my opinion, is the root cause for military historians’ objections to scholars like Fussell. As Bond’s article makes clear, some people are still refighting the ‘War Books’ controversy of the late 1920s and early 1930s, in very much the same terms as Jerrold and Falls did then. What Bond says about writers of that period applies equally well to the antagonists today; the division is “between those writers whose view of the First World War is negative (with futility as their watchword) and those who stress its positive features and legacy, despite full awareness of the destruction, suffering and heavy casualties.”(4) Fussell would probably agree, for he remarks of his critics that “there are still some who apparently think the First World War was not such a bad idea.”(5) For both sides of the divide, more is at stake than mere interpretation of historical facts, and (I would say) neither side chose its position simply from dispassionate review of the evidence.(6) It’s true, as you imply, that the anti-war side tends to appeal to civilian intellectuals without military experience. But this shouldn’t be pushed too far; Fussell himself was wounded while serving as an infantry officer in World War II and was drawn to the topic by the analogies he saw between his own military experience and that of men like Blunden.
Your piece is particularly useful, I think, because it points beyond canonizing Owen as ‘the voice from the trenches’ or dismissing him as a fringe figure with psychosexual problems. Leonard Smith has made some rather similar points about the interpretation of the war in general, calling on historians to develop alternatives to the ‘metanarrative’ of the war as tragedy with soldiers as the victims (though his embrace of postmodern theory is less convincing, in my opinion).(7)

(1) See the studies cited in Ian Beckett, _The Great War, 1914-1918_ (Longman, 2001), pp. 444-45.
(2) Paul Fussell, _The Great War and Modern Memory_, 25th anniversary edition, (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 338-41.
(3) Brian Bond, “British ‘Anti-War’ Writers and their Critics,” in _Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced_ (Leo Cooper, 1996), p. 819.
(4) Bond, p. 817.
(5) Fussell, p. 338.
(6) Bond’s article, for instance, is remarkably ex parte: no anti-war writings receive any kind words, while their opponents score “palpable hits” or provide “eloquent ripostes” in writings that “are treasured by military historians.” It is instructive to compare his piece with Hugh Cecil’s paper on “British War Novelists” which precedes it in the volume.
(7)”Narrative and Identity at the Front: ‘Theory and the Poor Bloody Infantry,’” in _The Great War and the Twentieth Century_ (Yale University Press, 2000).

2:11 PM  
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