The pity of war

What war generates, instead of grand spectacles of victory, is what novelist Cormac McCarthy called a ‘counterspectacle’ of humanity ending

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 17th Nov 2018   12:52 am

French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (11 Nov 1918) that ended the ‘Great War’, aka World War I, connects to an entire history of representations in literature.

Macron observes that the Great War had been fought by French soldiers alongside people of other races: ‘I have seen on our monuments the litany of names of Frenchmen alongside the names of foreigners who died under the French sun’. He concluded with: ‘France respectfully and solemnly salutes the dead of the other nations that she had once fought against. She stands by their side’.

One wonders if this apology and solidarity toward former, racially different, ‘enemies’ make the President of France an antinational in his country. The Great War that was fought to defend an idea of Europe and its various (white) national identities, depended on the services of Asian and African soldiers who had nothing to do with Europe, as contemporary scholarship has demonstrated.

In a savagely ironic expression of the cosmopolitan, multiracial nature of war-deaths, Isaac Rosenberg describes a rat on the battle-field in his ‘Dawn in the Trenches’:

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German…

Rosenberg’s rat is cosmopolitan in a way humans are not: humans love their borders and their cultural xenophobia helps them define their identity insularly. Cosmopolitan sympathies, such as the rat exhibits, would be antinational, says Rosenberg.

Romanticise Dying

Some poets, such as Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, would romanticise dying in the war, in a strange land:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

For Thomas Hardy, this alien earth in which Drummer Hodge is buried is precisely what causes him to ask questions of ‘national identity’:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined — just as found…
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Spaces of the dead often contain bodies of racially and nationally different others, such as Brooke’s or Hardy’s soldiers. How exactly then are these cenotaphs and museums ‘national’, wonder the poets. Death cosmopolitanises the dead and the land in which they die, for what it is worth.

War, states Macron, is not the best instantiation of a nation’s ‘moral values’. Soldiers trained to die, citizens beguiled into supporting war and the numerous sacrifices all round were never about nationalism. Nationalism, for many soldiers facing death every day in the trenches, was at odds with the egalitarianism of violent death. As the fighter pilot who expects to die in WB Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, puts it:

Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love…

National Interests
Gullible subjects opted for war or peace because they were persuaded this was in ‘national interests’, as in WH Auden’s The Unknown Citizen:

When there was peace, he was for peace:
when there was war, he went.

Here the myth of nationalism demanding war is split wide apart. Nationalism can only be tested for its strength, one would assume, by risking several million living bodies in conditions that mass-produce death. Hardy would say in Channel Firing:

All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

The ‘you’ here refers to the ghosts of the dead soldiers. The speaker, presumably God, mocks the efforts of humans who believe they fight for a cause, whether religion or nationalism. Delusional states of collective thought, made possible by propaganda, is highlighted in Macron’s speech: ‘old demons are now resurfacing … new ideologies [that] are manipulating religions, advocating a contagious obscurantism’ and then contrasts nationalism from patriotism: ‘patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism’, says Macron.

Moral Values

What are the moral values of a nation that sends its men to ‘die as cattle’, as Wilfred Owen puts it in Anthem for Doomed Youth. No prayer is adequate, says Owen, for these young men:

No prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

Wars, admittedly, are grand spectacles, especially in the age of televised destruction. But are they? Macron says: ‘I have seen the devastated villages that had no inhabitants left to rebuild them, and whose every stone is a testament to the madness of men’. In war, writes Siegfried Sassoon in Attack, ‘While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,/And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,/Flounders in mud’.

Wars destroy the very subject they supposedly protect: humanity. The devastation that Macron speaks of in his speech embodies the polar opposite of what humanity has always sought: to build. War may, to some minds, be nationalist, but it is never about humanity. In a lesser-known poem, Sara Teasdale would deliver a prognosis on post-war earth:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

What war generates, instead of grand spectacles of victory, is what the novelist Cormac McCarthy called a ‘counterspectacle’ of humanity ending. War represents in these texts, a winding down, of reversing the progress of civilisation:

Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.

This counterspectacle would be in Owen’s terms ‘the pity of war’.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)