Friday, September 26, 2008

Under fire

Finally I read Under Fire by Henri Barbusse, a book I’ve
been meaning to read for years. It puts everything else
I’ve ever read about the First World War in the shade,
with the possible exception of The Great War and
Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. As a documentary
description of life in the trenches it must surely be
unmatched. As a novel it is less satisfactory, though there
may be a better translation than the one I read. But many
of the set-piece scenes will stand forever as an indictment
of the madness of war as it is actually experienced by men
in the front lines. Which after a while, on the Western
Front, ceased to resemble anything like lines and became
charnel-houses of mud and blood and broken bodies. The
Second World War seems like a good clean fight in

Of course it wasn’t; and perhaps not enough allowance has
ever been made for the insidious after-effects of both world
wars on the societies from which the soldiers came and to
which the survivors returned. I think Keith Ovenden may
have it right when, in his biography of Dan Davin,
describing the terrible things men experienced in war, he
writes: “This, surely, was the true terror of war, and it could
only be broached as a topic of domestic conversation, if at
all, by reformulation into something else. From this sprang
the habit of camouflaging ugly truths that, even if expressed,
were otherwise unlikely to be understood...their presence,
whether distorted in the recollection, or suppressed into
tormented silence, was corrosive. They ate away at a
soldier's sense of moral connection with others, promoting
a degree of alienation that is easy to underestimate.”

In this regard, some illuminating remarks were made
earlier this year by Dr Hone Kaa, an Anglican minister, in
seeking reasons for the high rate of domestic violence
among Maori. Recalling his own childhood at Rangitukia
on the East Coast, Kaa, now 67, said: "Much of the violence
that the children of Rangitukia suffered was perpetrated on
them by men who after three or four years overseas had
known only how to kill or be killed."

Davin himself, in a very good short story called “Not
Substantial Things,” poignantly describes the moment
when he realized that the war was going to end and that he
and his mates would live on: “The fact was that chaps like
me had got older without noticing it. We’d never give
anything again what we’d given the Div. We’d never bring
the same energy to anything that we’d brought to things like
the break-through at Minqar Qaim or the assault on
Cassino. And we’d never be able to make friends again the
same way or drink and laugh and die the same way. We’d
used up what we had and we’d spend the rest of our lives
looking over our shoulders.”

And not at their wives and children.

Tellingly, Davin adds this observation: once the excitement
of war was gone, “A man’d soon have to start up again all
the old fights within himself that used to go on in the days
when there was no danger to his skin.”

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