Tuesday, 11 November 2014

For Remembrance Day: the Pity of War

In recognition of Remembrance Day, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning broadcast an item on Rudyard Kipling. One of the guests quoted the passage:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Remembrance Day
It struck me as a coincidence to hear Kipling mentioned on Radio 4, for the second time in a fortnight. But then I wondered whether it wasn’t a coincidence at all, but a reflection of something in the air today, a changing attitude towards the Great War. It does sometimes feel as though we’re shifting emphasis from its wanton, wasteful butchery, to something older, extolling the qualities traditionally associated with warriors. 

“Go to your God like a soldier” seems to encapsulate a certain ideal of military valour, doesn’t it?

Not that Kipling was at all impervious to the notion that a soldier wasn’t a breed apart, but merely another human, in uniform. In Tommy, he denounced the attitude of a society which despised its often ill-behaved, drunken, riotous soldiers in peacetime, but was only too quick to push them into the front line in war (“Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?, But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll”). Kipling countered:

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints…

Even so, this still feels too much like a eulogy. These are the homespun, unsung men who defend us uncomplainingly and with hard steadfast courage. With no question asked as to what right British soldiers have to be in “Afghanistan’s plains”, a matter we clearly still haven’t satisfactorily settled today.

So when it comes to questioning the notion that soldiers are heroes, rather than plain men and women suffering harrowing inhumanity, I prefer a writer I’ve not heard quoted at all in the last few weeks. He wrote a draft, incomplete preface to his poems, before he was killed just a week from the end of the Great War:

This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or power, except War.

Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.

The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

The poetry’s in the pity. Kipling’s verse (he refused to call it poetry) is stirring, often moving. But as we think of the Great War, it seems to me the most appropriate emotion is pity, above all at waste, “the undone years, the hopelessness.”

For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled…

…I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .

It’s good to rediscover Kipling, to marvel at his verse. But when we look at World War One, let’s prefer the eyes of Wilfred Owen.

No comments: