Because Our Fathers Lied
Remembering our veterans and reflecting on the glorious ambiguity of Rudyard Kipling's war poetry.
A member of the U.S. military visits Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day 2007.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
I spent much of this weekend, as I often do this time of year, confining myself to writing and thinking about Rudyard Kipling. This may seem like a pretentious thing to be saying, but if you care about war and peace and justice and life and death, then he is an inescapable subject. The same is true if you care about modern English literature, which for no less inescapable reasons is intimately bound up with the great catastrophe of mortality that overcame British families between August 1914 and November 1918.
There had probably never been such a race for a society to get itself involved in the battle for a perceived moral superiority. Great swaths of young men saw their honor, and huge groups of young girls their virtue, involved in the defense of Belgium against the rape of German imperialism. As a result, a huge and successful post-Victorian people found itself nearly decimated, with a special emphasis on the slaughter of its youth of child-bearing age. And Kipling himself, the man who brought us The Jungle Book and many a school yarn, was desolate because he did not have a real son to lend, or to give, to the fight.
Pay attention when people make use of those terms, about “giving” or “losing” your life in wartime. Often, we have only the uncorroborated word of the losers that that is what they did. Either their lives were offered and accepted—this being the great act of sacrifice and solidarity honored since Pericles and the Gettysburg Address—or they were ruthlessly snatched away. In which latter case we have only the word of the generals and the kings and the politicians that this was indeed a legitimate deal. That, also, would be rather more like an accident.
Whereas the last alternative, almost too grim to reflect upon, would be that of deliberate theft. In this scenario we encounter cannon fodder, fiddled casualty figures, falsified statistics and all the cynicism of wartime manipulation and propaganda. And again, nobody is on hand to represent the words of the victim. That is what happened to young John Kipling when he was posted “missing” at the end of one of the fiercest early battles of the First World War. His father Rudyard, upset that the boy was disqualified for the military because of his poor eyesight, had in effect smuggled him through customs so as to pass the minimal regulations. His agony, therefore, as to having effectively cheated his boy into vanishing in the trenches, can only be dimly guessed at.
Young John wasn’t properly identified until the 1990s; a dreadful fact about hundreds of thousands of young British men of that epoch who still have not been bagged or tagged from the ditches and drains of the areas of Flanders and Picardy where the supreme sacrifice—another term to watch out for—was actually carried out in those sanguinary years. I wrote about the exhumation, and it seems that he was horribly injured and perhaps blinded toward the end. As a kind of atonement, his father agreed to write the official history of his son’s Irish regiment and also to help design the official memorial to that strange idea, “The Unknown Soldier.” Unknown to whom?
Even as Kipling was repressing his doubts about the nature of the war and the death of his only son, there was a sort of revolution of poets at the other end of the country. In a mental hospital in Scotland were confined, because of their opposition to the war and their “battle fatigue,” men of the stature of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Just contrast what Kipling and Owen wrote. I’ll first cite Kipling:
Our statecraft, our learning,
Delivered them bound to the pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honor.
Not since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her!
… But who shall return us our children?
Wilfred Owen decided to rework the ancient Bible story of the binding and killing of Isaac by his father Abraham. If you recall, Abraham listened to his god’s instructions and carried them out until the last moment, whereupon an angel called him out of heaven, telling him to “offer the ram of pride instead” of Isaac. In Owen’s poem, the action follows this form until the angel makes an appearance. At this point, old man Abraham turns remorseless:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son.
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Reading them today, it is surprising how closely the two poems converge. In both cases, fathers grieve in different ways over the slaughter of their sons. They also brood over the paternal responsibility for the bloodletting. This introduces elements of ambiguity into the reflection.
Last week, some mediocre California mayoress announced that she wasn’t going to attend a Veterans Day event in her city of Richmond. Gayle McLaughlin, in fact, was down with the “Occupy” guys and gals instead. You can easily picture the response she got: the city of Richmond insulted, along with the memory of its brave men and women in uniform. Indeed, there might not even be a Richmond if not for those unforgettable volunteers. But if this were true, then the writing of history would always be simple. So would the composition of morality stories. Both Kipling and Owen came to the conclusion that too many lives had been “taken” rather than offered or accepted, and that too many bureaucrats had complacently accepted the sacrifice as if they themselves had earned it.
And this has made a lot of difference. It means, for example, that each case needs to be argued on its own merits. I am convinced that the contingents who went to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, though badly led on a scale almost equal to that of 1914 to 1918, are to be praised and supported. But I take no comfort from the idea that this should be an official position. I must say I think that La McLaughlin expressed herself with awful casualness (because Nov. 11 is, after all, truly—still—a solemn day on the calendar). But it’s still more important on such a day to discuss dissent, and to reflect on whether it might have been your own enemy, or your deeply mistaken father, who brought you bound to the pit and alive to the burning.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.