XX HEROES AND HEROICS
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way to intensifying our error, and laying up endless difficulties
way to intensifying our error, and laying up endless difficulties
in the days that are to come.
in the days that are to come.
Latest revision as of 07:45, 19 September 2008
HEROES AND HEROICS
"FACILE descensus Averni," and the Avernus of the journalist in war time is a fatal facility for writing heroics. Everyone who has handled the pen of a scribe knows how the descent comes about. A man sees or experiences something which cries out for expression. He puts pen to paper, and the result is acclaimed as a little masterpiece. "Write more," say his friends, and he casts about for another theme which will bear the same heroic treatment. He tries to reproduce the dramatic staccato which came so naturally before; but this time the inspiration is lacking, the heroics are spurious, and the result is "journalese." His heroics don't ring true. What cant is to religion, they are to heroism. They take what is fine and rare and make it cheap.
The typical Englishman hates heroics. He regards them as un-English. If he has done a fine action the last thing that he wants is for the fact to be exploited, advertised. It is not exactly modesty that prompts his instinct for reticence; it is something nearer akin to reverence. He does not want his pearls cast before swine. He knows that the beauty of a fine action is like the bloom of the wild flower, elusive, mystical. It will not survive the touch of the hot, greasy hands that would pluck the flower from its root and hawk it in the street. So when the "serious" journalist takes to heroics the typical Englishman takes refuge in satire, on exactly the same principle as when false sentiment invades the drama he abandons it for musical comedy.
The satirist always claims to be a realist, though not everyone will admit his title. He mocks at the heroic, and says that he will show you the real thing. In war time no one can afford to be a satirist who has not done his bit, a fact which gives him an additional weight. Men like Captain Bairnsfather of the Bystander and "Henry" of Punch have earned the right to mock, and in their mockery they often get closer to the portrayal of authentic heroism than do their more idealistic brethren. Take Bairnsfather's picture of two Tommies sitting in a dug-out, while their parapet is being blown to smithereens about a yard away. It bears the legend, "There goes our blinkin' parapet again!" The 'eroes in the dug-out are about as unheroic in appearance as it is possible to imagine. They are simply a pair of stolid, unimaginative, intensely prosaic Tommies of the British workman type. They have low foreheads and bulgy eyes, " tooth-brush" mustaches and double chins; their hair is untidy, and one of them is smoking a clay pipe. It is obvious that they are blasphemously fed-up. Of course they are not really typical at all. They are much too prosaic and unimaginative. But the picture does bring home to you that the fellows in the trenches are very ordinary people after all, which is a fact that folk at home are very apt to overlook. And at the same time, though the realism is too sordid to be quite true to life, it cannot hide the fact that the stoicism of the two heroes is rather heroic, in spite of their obvious lack of any sense of the dramatic.
Bairnsfather's sketches represent the extreme reaction from the heroic. His trench heroes are so animal in type and expression as to be positively repulsive. As the editor says in his introduction, "the book will be a standing reminder of the ingloriousness of war, its preposterous absurdity, and of its futility as a means of settling the affairs of nations." Yet for that very reason it is an incomplete picture of war. It is perfectly true, and it is a good thing that we should realize it, that the majority of men go through the most terrific experiences without ever becoming articulate. For every Englishman who philosophizes there are a hundred who don't. For every soldier who prays there are a thousand who don't. But there is hardly a man who will not return from the war bigger than when he left home. His language may have deteriorated. His "views" on religion and morals may have remained unchanged. He may be rougher in manner. But it will not be for nothing that he has learned to endure hardship without making a song about it, that he has risked his life for righteousness' sake, that he has bound up the wounds of his mates, and shared with them his meagre rations. We who have served in the ranks of "the first hundred thousand" will want to remember something more than the ingloriousness of war. We shall want to remember how adversity made men unselfish, and pain found them tender, and danger found them brave, and loyalty made them heroic. The fighting man is a very ordinary person, that's granted; but he has shown that the ordinary person can rise to unexpected heights of generosity and self-sacrifice.
The fact is that neither heroics nor satire are a completely satisfactory record of what we shall want to remember of this war. Least of all does the third type of war journalism satisfy---that of the lady who writes in the society paper of her "sweet ickle tempies with the curly eyebrows," and her "darling soldier-lad with the brave, merry smile."
Whether the Press forms or reflects public opinion is a moot point; but there is certainly an intimate correspondence between the two, as the soldier who is sent to "Blighty" finds to his cost. The society journalist pets him, the "serious"' journalist writes heroics about him, and the satirist makes fun of the heroics. He looks in vain for a sane recognition that he has earned the right to be taken seriously as a man. So, too, the society lady of a certain sort pets him, has him to tea at the "Cri," or invites him to Berkeley Square. The larger public lionizes him., gives him concerts and lusty cheers, takes his photo at every possible opportunity, and provides him with unlimited tobacco and gramophones. While the authorities satirize the lionizers by treating him exactly as if he really was the creature in Bairnsfather's sketches---a gross, brainless, animal fool, who cannot be trusted. This is all very well. I suppose that most men like to be petted by a pretty woman, specially if she has a handle to her name, though the charm soon wears off. Being lionized is boring, but has solid advantages. Satire is amusing on paper, though infuriating when translated into action. Very soon, however, the wounded soldier begins to long to be less petted, less lionized, and instead to be treated as a rational being who is entitled to a certain elementary respect.
One can only speak from personal observation. One place differs from another. But from what the writer has seen and experienced he judges that the one thing which a wounded soldier cannot expect is to be treated as a man. He is sent to "Blighty." He arrives at a hospital. His chief pleasure, oddly enough, lies in the prospect of seeing something of his relations and friends. He is surprised and indignant when he finds that he is only allowed to see visitors of his own choice two at a time, for two hours, twice a week. On the other five days he has to put up with the licensed visitors of the hospital. They may be very elevating and amiable people; but he feels no conceivable interest in them. He is still further dismayed when he discovers that under no circumstances may he visit his home while he is a patient. He may go to tea with Lady Snooks, or the Duchess of Downshire; but not with his wife or his mother. The writer's neighbor in the hospital ward was a case in point. He was a man of about thirty who, at the outbreak of war, was holding a responsible position in Sydney. He had all the self-respect which is typical of the colonial of even a few years' standing. He was receiving ten minutes' electrical treatment per diem, with a view to restoring sensation to one of his hands. Otherwise he was able-bodied. His father lived within twenty minutes' walk of the hospital; but not only was he not allowed to live at home and attend as an out-patient, he was not even allowed to visit his home. He was told that the treatment would have to be continued for some six months, and meanwhile he must be a prisoner in the hospital. At the V.A.D. convalescent home to which the writer was subsequently transferred, and which was regulated from the hospital, there were several married men whose homes were within reach. They were absolutely forbidden to visit them. One man, who had been in hospital for nine months without ever going home, was so disgusted that he eventually took French leave for a couple of days. On his return he was put in the punishment ward of the main hospital, where he was deprived of tobacco and visitors, and was informed that when he was discharged he would be sent to his battalion for punishment! His comment was, "You'll see; when this war is over it will be just as it was after South Africa. We shall be so much dirt." When we did leave the grounds it had to be in the conspicuous garb, of a military convalescent, that all men might stare, and under the escort of a nurse. Many a quiet, sensible fellow preferred not to go out at all.
Another example of the humiliation to which wounded soldiers are subject refers to their difficulty in obtaining their arrears of pay. One man, who had got the eight days' furlough to which a soldier is entitled on leaving hospital, could only obtain twenty-four shillings "advance of pay," though entitled to many pounds. It barely covered his train fare, and left him nothing for paying his living expenses (and his relations were very poor) or for pocket money. The Army is the only profession which I know in which a man receives, not the money to which he is entitled, but such proportion of it as the authorities like to disburse.
This is how the authorities satirize the lionizers, and not all the petting and the lionizing in the world will compensate for the denial of the elementary rights of a man., the right to choose his own visitors, to visit his own home, and to receive the money which he has earned.
A man soon tires of being petted and lionized, and craves in vain for the sane respect which is a man's due.
I am aware that there are many hospitals where soldiers are treated much more rationally, and I have never heard that they have abused their reasonable liberty. Nevertheless I feel that it is worth while to utter a protest against the state of affairs described above because it is, after all, so typical of the general failure of the Press, the public, and the powers that be to recognize that the soldier who has fought for his country has earned the right to be regarded as a man. He doesn't want to be petted. Heroics nauseate him. He is not a child or a hero. He is just a man who has done his duty, and he wants a man's due.
It is desirable that soldiers should receive their due now; but it is much more vitally important that when the war is over, and the craze for petting and lionizing has died down, it should be recognized that the soldier who has fought for his country is something more than a pet that has lost his popularity, and a lion that has ceased to roar. There is grave danger that all that will survive of the present mixed attitude towards the soldier will be the attitude of authority, which regards him as an irresponsible animal. For after all, this attitude is just that which before the war poisoned the whole administration of charity, and the whole direction of philanthropy. Before the war a cry was heard, "We don't want charity, we want the right to live a wholesome life." Too often the reply of the "upper classes" was to denounce the "ingratitude" of the poor. The cry that we hear now---"We are not pets or lions, but men"---is the same cry in a new guise. It is the cry of the working classes for a sane respect. Be sure that when the war is over that cry will be heard no less strongly, for the working classes have proved their manhood on the field of honor. In this time of trouble and good-will we have the chance to redeem the error of the past, and to lay the foundation of a nobler policy by adopting a saner, a wider, a more generous outlook; but we seem to be in a fair way to intensifying our error, and laying up endless difficulties in the days that are to come.