Class in war

Ah, the joy of coincidence . . . I mention the possibility that social inequality might have something important to tell us about who wrote most of the WWI poetry we know, and here’s Sam Jordison, posting a couple of hours ago,

In 1940, George Orwell summed up the general consensus when he claimed that if you looked for the working classes in fiction “and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole in the air”. So when the Angry Young Men came along, they were seen as completely revolutionary. As Martin Knight (who is now 50) explains: “I was led to believe that this kind of earthy, gritty working-class fiction only broke cover in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Well these books – that so far have been glossed over and removed from history – prove that’s absolute rubbish.”

Then Sam goes on to tell us about a pair of dead tree artefacts that came and went soundlessly – for all practical purposes. Call me mad, but I’m more inclined to trust Orwell as an authority on the working class fiction of his day than an enterprising 21st-century publisher talking up books to which he’s probably acquired reprint rights for a penny or two. . . Yes, yes, I’m delighted that they are being brought to our attention, but George was right.

. . . The connection between the class war and class in warfare is still on my mind. I’ve been wondering about the long gap between WWI’s shattering of the old social order and the advent of John Osborne & Co. since freepoland’s thoroughly engaging suggestion:

I would like to offer the proposition that the canon of WW1 poetry – Owen, Sassoon, Thomas etc [. . .] introduced a new function for poetry. [. . .] And what name to give that ‘new function’ is problematic. Try ‘Politico-therapeutic-hallucinatory-ironic’.

freep doesn’t explicitly get into class issues, but his inclusion of ‘politico’ led me to sense them hiding there between the lines (but I’ll stand corrected, if need be.)

I’ve never been able to forget class in connection with war since the acquiring editor of the extraordinary Achilles in Vietnam gave me a copy of the book in 1994, the year it was published. Its author is Jonathan Shay — a shrink who, in working with traumatised veterans of that disastrous war, noticed a close parallel between the experiences of his patients and the soldiers of the Iliad, who were also psychologically devastated by being betrayed by their commanders.

The epigraph of his first chapter is a quotation of Judith Herman, a colleague who said at the 1990 Harvard Trauma Conference:

Every instance of severe traumatic psychological injury is a standing challenge to the rightness of the social order.

American egalitarianism was one of the many forces behind our Angry Young Men bursting onto the scene. So I found it ironic to learn from Shay’s book that Vietnam was the first major Western war in which senior officers did not fight beside the men they commanded. In this respect, Homer’s epic did not fit at all: sophisticated communications technologies allowed the fortunate to wage war by remote control:

The Iliad reminds us that military and political leaders have not always been thousands of miles away from the war zone. Agamemnon, the highest Greek political and military authority, personally shares every soldier’s risk on the battlefield . . .

In WWI, senior officers, most of them members of the upper classes, behaved like Agamemnon, as far as I know. But in all the wars the US has fought since Vietnam, nearly all the men and women on the front have been soldiers drawn from the working classes – which has always struck me as shameful beyond describing.

It’s sad that there appears to have been so little poetry by men of ‘other ranks’ in WWI, and that thought mightn’t have occurred to me if Achilles in Vietnam hadn’t left an imprint like a searing brand. One Isaac Rosenberg from Whitechapel isn’t enough to undo that conclusion. Besides, he was Jewish, and the glory of Judaism (not the religion of my own family) is that education has always been given the highest importance for ‘people of the Book’ of all classes.


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