Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Lie About the War: A 1930 Critique of War Literature

The Lie About the War
A 1930 Critique of War Literature, by Douglas Jerrold
Conservative historian and publisher Douglas Jerrold, a man once described as "an uncompromising controversialist," in 1930 found himself quite dissatisfied with the literature – both fictional and memoirs in the form of novels – taking the war as its subject. He published a scathing pamphlet titled The Lie About the War that grouped together such recent "best sellers," which are now rated the war's "classics," as All Quiet on the Western FrontGood-bye to All ThatUnder FireThe Secret BattleStorm of SteelThe Enormous Room and theSpanish Farm Trilogy, and described what he saw as their common and central flaw. I believe the excerpt below captures the heart of Jerrold's argument. Incidentally, in the 1950s Jerrold became better known for publishing an equally powerful rejection of the works of mega-historian Arnold Toynbee.

These books all reflect (intentionally or otherwise), the illusion that the war was avoidable and futile, and most of them reflect the illusion that it was recognized as futile by those who fought it. It is this obsession of futility, not any special depth of sympathy or humanitarianism which accounts for the piling up of the individual agony to so many poignant climaxes remote from the necessities or even from the normal incidental happenings of war. The suffering, the horror and the desolation is presented always and brutally as without a meaning so far as the declared purposes of the struggle are conceived, because these declared purposes are, to the writers and critics of the moment, either so many impudent and deadly frauds or so many irrelevancies, to the achievement of which the blunders and crimes of the military were only so many obstacles.

Now these writers are too gifted not to know that if the sufferings of the war were really futile and superfluous or its incidents irrelevant, the sufferings would in themselves be utterly without significance. These writers know as well as I do that the only possible tragedy of the war, considered as war, lay in its inevitability, that to deny the element of fatality must be to deny that it was a tragedy at all. Yet to accept the element of fatality would be to invest the war with a grandeur which these novelists are determined to deny it. Hence the frantic attempt to get the dramatic quality out of every kind of struggle except the struggle of one army against another and so to get a significant novel without having to admit that it was a significant war.

The struggle of the coward against fear, of the artist's sensibility and refinement against progressive brutalization, of the brave man against exhaustion, of the 'line' against the Staff, of the amateur against the professional soldier, of the individual against authority, all lead up to and are subservient to the ultimate and wholly mendacious struggle of the man of peace against war [in Remarque's words:] "the fighting, the terror, the mastery, the power and the tenacity of the vital forces of the individual man faced with death and annihilation." To put it another way, perhaps gaining in vividness at the expense of exact analysis, the real tragedy of the war is being falsely reported as the death of so many men whose duty it was to live, whereas the real tragedy was that duty offered no alternative but death. And it was for this reason that death was accepted, not in fear, not in sullen indifference or in open or suppressed revolt, but deliberately and in the face of countless opportunities of evasion.

This is where the crime against mere veracity begins to show. To establish the dramatic quality of the secondary and sometimes wholly imaginary struggles which make up the tale of these unmilitary epics, every essential fact is falsified, either objectively or by an illegitimate technique.

A French critic [Jean Norton] has accumulated a catalogue of objective errors in some of the more popular works. I hesitate to follow in his footsteps because it is impossible to establish a negative. What is happening today is precisely what happened in 1914 in the matter of the German "atrocities" in England and in 1919 of French "atrocities" in Germany. A grotesque legend is being built up on a slender basis of hearsay.
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  1. What the devil is this guy trying to say? He does not make sense to me.Has the war been exagerrated or not emphasized enough? The lie was that the war did not settle much for such a horrible bloodbath. Is this enough to write a book about?

  2. Can you can a copy of the book anywere?????????

  3. He comes across to me as a pseudo intellectual nut-ball. Not clear writing at all.

    Are readers aware that he, and Englishman, could be viewed as the single character who activated the Spanish Civil War by arranging the flight to take Franco from the Canary Islands to Morocco; an easy trip across the water to Spain enabled Franco to be where he could do the most harm. (Sorry, my personal bias.)

  4. What he is trying to say, I feel, is that the people saying that the war was being fought by broken men who were there for negative reasons, dishonors all those who saw it as their duty and accepted that death was part ofthe possible equation. This is a guy arguing in 1930 when it was still an open issue. 80 more years of thoughtful analysis has taken overall historic consensus to a basic understanding that the war was a pretty awful bloodbath that may well have been avoided- but for the machanations of various key players who pushed the war forward based on adgendas, that were sure to inflame general war. Clearly the public accepted the more popular view of the war- it was a dark sore on everyone heart. It was negative to their lives. Everyone suffered. The reasons why seemed pretty hollow when matched to the butcher's bill. Yes it was duty that brought forth legions of men doomed to be slaughtered. They were not forced to do it-- much. They went based on their own visions of what was expected of them, and trusted in their Nations being right. It would take another World War to shift that idea even further away from the wars being justified..

  5. Reminds me of Willa Cather's novel _One of Ours_, which is one of the few pro-WWI novels written after the war. (The hero finds purpose in the war. The only bad thing is Versailles ends up not being punitive enough)

  6. His writing has an extremely high "fog count". His editor probably ran out of blue pencils.

  7. Perhaps he was asking the writers and readers to remove the romanticism that is woven through most of the books about the war. The suffering during the long marches, the near starvation times in the trenches tend to ask the reader to award martyr status on the writers and provide a picture of hopelessness in the face of adverticy. A worthwhile request but then how would we show the horrors of war to those who have not experienced it? There are those who are envious of the person who is at the cutting edge of history and do not want to hear of those times. Hence, we have such literature.

  8. It is always very interesting to read the political science literature of war, just before or after a great conflagration. The books are out there in the dusty isles of used book stores, or surplused from dwindling libraries. Others include: "The Causes of War" by various British authors from 1935 with a summary by Chamberlain; or "The Anatomy of Peace" by Reves from 1945... However, their views are just paper that end up in the book burnings of fanatics that "let slip the dogs..."