Tuesday 11 November 2014

Book Review: "Noble Illusions" by Stephen Dale

Every year the middle school I work at holds an assembly on Remembrance Day. A small group of teachers organizes the event. Many students (they range in age from 11 to 15) are recruited to take part: some sing; some recite poetry, or other readings; and some put on dramatic presentations. Videos are displayed on a large screen, showing images and film from WWI and WWII. The solemn assembly ends with a rendition of "The Last Post" (often played live by a student trumpeter) and a minute's silence. It is always a moving event watching young people respectfully commemorating the deaths of Canadians who served their country in wartime - in wars they know virtually nothing about and can scarcely imagine. 

Invariably our observances feature a recitation of John McCrea's poem "In Flanders Fields". This poem is a favourite element of many Canadian ceremonies on Remembrance Day, not only because it inspired the symbolic use of red poppies on this day, but also because the author, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, was a Canadian soldier and physician who died in the line of duty at Boulogne, France in January, 1918. McCrae is believed to have written his famous poem on May 3rd., 1915, the day after he presided over the funeral and burial of his friend Lieutenant Alex Helmer - killed during the second Battle of Ypres. He wrote the poem on the back of a field ambulance just north of Ypres. The red poppy symbolizes the blood spilled by allied soldiers in WWI; the flower grew everywhere in Flanders, including the battlefields and the many makeshift cemeteries.

John McCrea
McCrea's poem has always bothered me. It may be useful in a school context, because of its subject matter - its uncomplicated ideas, and its straightforward sentiment; but its message jars profoundly with the reality of the Great War. "Never again" was the universal cry after that obscene conflict. "The war to end all wars" was the pervading description of that futile and criminal enterprise. Remembrance Day should not just be a day for our children to honour the fallen; it should also be a day for them to reaffirm their natural hope for peace. We need to be careful that our talk of war is not mere patriotic fervour and jingoistic sloganeering. We should make it clear to our youth that war is not only a horrendous failure of civilized life; it's often a senseless slaughter; and sometimes it is a crime against humanity.

The best poetry to come out of WWI - work by the likes of Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen - told the true story of that war, full of "the horror and the pity". Wilfred Owen, for example, wrote about the horrors he witnessed of a gas attack in the trenches. The final lines of his poem are these:

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.

The closing Latin line comes from an Ode by Horace: "It is sweet and right to die for your country." Given the awful reality, Owen knew that that was a lie.

Wilfrid Owen

Ironically, John McCrea also knew all about gas. He was present at the second Battle of Ypres, when the German army instigated its first use of chemical weapons. On April 22nd., 1915 the Canadian position was hit by chlorine gas. But they still held firm for another two weeks. In a letter to his mother, McCrea described the horrific scene like this: 

"For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds .... And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way."

On May 2nd., his friend Alex Helmer was killed. McCrea wrote his poem In Flanders Fields the next day. How does he respond to the brutal realities of modern, mechanized warfare? He ignores it. He opts for patriotic propaganda instead. The first nine lines of the poem set a pleasant, pastoral tone: "... in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below." Lucky larks. And then comes the defiant message of the final six lines:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

"Take up our quarrel with the foe ...". No horror and pity here: if you continue the fight, he is saying, if you persist with the mindless slaughter, if we pile more dead upon the dead, it will all be honourable and worthwhile. It's the sort of notion that might fool a youth "ardent for some desperate glory".

Young men have always been fooled into marching off to war - they leave home all fired-up and eager for adventure, longing for honour, and yearning for glory. These are the perennial dreams and illusions of youth. Then they are trained to kill; they are indoctrinated to hate the enemy; they are taught that violence is just, when it is in the service of a righteous cause. But rhetoric is not reality; futile sacrifice is not honour; and dying for a lie is not glory. These are the hard lessons they must learn; and many of them will return home hating what they have done, and despising the system that deceived them.

This is the underlying theme of Stephen Dale's fine new book Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War, published recently by Fernwood Publishing. What was the mindset, Dale wonders, that existed in the immediate pre-WWI era that prompted young men from all over the British Empire to rush off eagerly to the war in Europe? He has come at this task by carefully examining several annuals of the magazine Young Canada: An Illustrated Magazine for Boys - those annuals that were released just before, but also during, the Great War. These annuals were hard-bound collections of the previous year's monthly releases. The Young Canada magazines, despite the title, were not actually produced in Canada. They originated in the UK - primarily for a domestic audience - but were then given new titles and new covers, and shipped out to other English-speaking corners of the Empire. What messages did the adventure-stories in these monthly periodicals - many set on the battlefield, or in other violent, militaristic settings - convey to these innocent and impressionable young boys? And how were those messages reinforcing the pro-war rhetoric that they were absorbing from authority figures at school, at Boy Scouts, at Boys Brigade, and at church?

As Stephen Dale makes clear, violence in the service of the British Empire was always justified as a necessary - if sometimes unfortunate - tool for the subjugation of inferior peoples, who needed to be controlled and then "civilized". Enemies of the Empire - peoples who got in the way of the Imperial plan - were invariably patronised or demonized: they were portrayed as ignorant and sub-human savages, or as perverted and evil demons. Once they were sorted out, though, with sword or rifle, they could be trained and educated to enjoy the benefits of Pax Britannica. If these violent and murderous tactics jarred with the essential pacifism of the Christian message the boys might be hearing in church, a focus on the victims' swarthy heathenism would help to assuage any moralistic hesitations. Tales of the enemies' barbaric cruelty (especially against women and children) also helped.

Dehumanizing the enemy was easy when these Imperial adventures were set in the nineteenth century: the people had brown and black skin; they lived in exotic locales; they wore strange costumes; and they were held by strange beliefs and alien gods. Sometimes the racist attitudes could be quite casual; other times they were shockingly virulent. But when the enemy was a white European, from a civilized world of high-culture - a culture rooted in Judaeo-Christian values, the justification for war and plunder required a more subtle approach. First, the civilized nature of the Teutonic enemy must be shown to be a thin veneer that hid a bestial essence. Second, our young men must be inspired by ideals of honour, virtue and adventure. They are fighting not simply to kill; they are fighting on behalf of a principle, a people, a way of life. They are fighting "to preserve our freedom".

The first part of Noble Illusions, then, is spent in showing how the zeitgeist of the immediate pre-war period (WWI) is manifested in the Young Canada magazines. And in demonstrating how that spirit led young men all over the Empire to enlist for the War with real enthusiasm. It was going to be a great adventure, they thought. The folly of youth. The second part of the book deals with the aftermath of their experience of that horrific conflict. It deals with the fallout that came when reality shattered rhetoric, and when "adventure" turned into slaughter.

The most interesting idea that the author deals with in this section is the notion of irony. The pre-War period was an era that knew nothing of irony. This was an age of innocence and sincerity. Rhetorical utterance was easier, because ideals had not been shattered, incompetent leadership at all levels had not been exposed, and the futility of military objectives had not been made obvious. Once the enormous scale of the killing became known at the front; once it became clear that military and political leaders were persisting with a hopeless cause, the jig was up. Rhetoric could not overcome cynicism, ridicule and despair. It did not take long for the ironic response to become the fall-back position: it underlay the black-humour used to make life in the trenches barely tolerable; it was central to the narrative voice of most trench poetry; and it was the leading attitude of post-war modernism.

Stephen Dale's book is an important reminder that language is important, even when talking to children - especially when talking to children. If the words we use to educate our children are full of empty rhetoric, if the ideals we espouse are not based on solid reality, if the claims we make are not founded on lived experience, then we are in danger of fostering nothing but lies and illusions.

In the opening chapter of Noble Illusions - "The Past as a Part of the Present" - Dale makes some important points about current realities - how those past illusions are being presented to us again as viable ideals for the future. We see this most strikingly in the way current Canadian and UK governments are trying to use the centenary of the Great War as a means to promote a reactionary view of the conflict. The guiding notion, surely, of that war is futility. Millions and millions of young men died for nothing. Nothing was achieved. The lasting legacy of that War was a failed peace. The Second World War was born in the botched aftermath of the First. Many of our right-wing leaders in Canada and the UK want to persuade us that the Great War was a war we undertook to guarantee our freedom. They say the War was an honourable and successful defence of our cherished values. This is nonsense. As Stephen Dale points out, when Harry Patch - the final surviving veteran of WWI - died in 2009, at the age of 111, the UK government attempted to exploit his death for propaganda purposes. What they neglected to acknowledge was that Patch's experiences at Ypres and Passchendaele turned him into an ardent and vocal opponent of war. In a book that he eventually wrote about the horrors of WWI Patch said this: "the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle the differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder".

This is a timely book, which I recommend. It has valuable things to say about the dangers of pro-war rhetoric. And that is important, given the currents noises and posturing coming from the government in Ottawa.

The earliest phase of poetry coming out of the Great War was infected with the rhetorical illusions that helped provoke the conflict. You can read it in the romantic lyricism of poets like Rupert Brooke - full of ardent idealism and glorious hopes for England. It took a while for many of these wordsmiths to adapt their poetic language to the realities of the trench. John McCrea knew all about those horrors. That he chose to encourage more fighting, rather than protest the obscenity of the carnage he had already witnessed - especially given that he was a medical man - is disappointing.

Anthem For Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(Wilfrid Owen)

Stephen Dale lives in Ottawa, Canada. 

He is the author of Candy From Strangers: Kids and Consumer Culture, Lost in the Suburbs: A Political Travelogue, and McLuhan's Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media

1 comment:

  1. Well said Clive. You did an excellent job setting this in the context of today's festivities and how we mark Remembrance Day in our schools. I too enjoyed Stephen's book and would recommend it as well (though i'm afraid not as eloquently as you have here!). Thank you and thank you stephen! all good things, rk