Page 4, 17th April 1953

17th April 1953
Page 4
Page 4, 17th April 1953 — BULLETS AND BLASPHEMY

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A famous novelist comments on the novels of two World Kars


IN 1915 and 1916 the late Ian Hay's The First Hundred Thousand was accepted as an aceurate picture of armed conflict by stay-at-homes who thought of Flanders as an outsize football match. War, readers of W. J. Locke's The Rough Road assumed, made men of weaklings, and for those who found the medicine hitter there were Bairnsfather's carbons to assure them that shells could sometimes be funny.

It was in manly slang without the aspirates that "boys in khaki, boys in blue" were supposed to react to seeing their friends', and having their own. entrails gouged out. Even Gilbert Keith Chesterton imagined that the major's oaths were "jolly." "The rough words of our lads in the trenches are inspired by the Holy Ghost," a clergyman assured the flowered hats and bald pates in his congregation on Whit-Sunday, 1917. In spite of its ignorance of theology, the latrine squad of The Highland Light Infantry which 1 overheard at (jades seven months later would have been perplexed by the cornpliment.

Tarnished souls

Ov course Henri Barbusse ex pioded all this nonsense when he published Le Feu, but it was Donald Hankey's A Student in Arms which first suggested to Anglo-Saxons that men who dared nobly did not always speak with tongues of celestial fire. To begin with, the civilians didn't believe the information, a n d when Stephen Graham went one further in A Private in the Guards and made it evident that the incidence of the apostolic succession was rarely discussed in Chelsea Barracks he was roundly called a liar.

But by the time Robert Keable wrote Simon Called Peter the war was far enough away for all of us to accept the fact that soldiers' souls had not always been as bright as their buttons; the real religious significance of this book was, however, missed by the majority, who grinned over what had happened in the Piccadilly hotel instead of wetping over what had not happened at the early communion service in Rouen.

After this initiation we were able to sit up and take the gruel; when we had read Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the .Western Front a n d Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero we were no longer surprised by the knowledge that the courage or our soldiers in a professedly Christian war had in no wise been fashioned by Christianity.

Soon we were looking with loveless pity upon those who bared their arms and showed their scars and said these wounds they'd fiad on Crispin's day.

Untied in blasphemy

I N 1939 the disillusionment set

in from the beginning. Outside the speeches of the politicians there was little pretence, and perhaps this was a pity, because there is at least one virtue in hypocrisy : recognition of a standard. Instead of fighting for God's kingdom we were doing down the fascists. and even this secondary ideal was not always prevalent

among the conscripts, who often loathed their allies whom they had seen more ardently than they hated their enemies whom they had mot seen.

But however much the British and the American soldier were divided by jealousies and pay warrants. Front the City. From the Plough, No Howe, The Naked and the Dead and The Young Lions showed that they were united in their addiction to foul language and blasphemy.


HESE four books were of value in so far as they fulfilled Stendhal's description of the novel as "a mirror taking a walk along a highway." But Stendhars definition is inadequate: mirrors which take walks by themselves are mechanical and incapable of selecting which objects to reflect. It is the slant at which the mirror is held by a carrier. and the occasions when it is replaced in the carrier's pooket which make the difference between painting and photography.

For, after all, it is just as inartistic to over-emphasize the immoral persons on the road as the moral. In the eight years which I myself have served with armies II certainly met more blasphemers than saints, but i also met the saints, and in between the two the vast amorphous porridge of those who were neither for Him nor against Him.

It is hard to believe that even the foul-mouthed Catholic Gallagher in The Naked and the Dead could get the Hail Mary wrong. and harder still to accept the implication of The Young Lions that no soldier is ever concerned with the "many-splendoured thing" except to ridicule it in reach-medown profanity. Even life on the ocean wave stills less to contemplation in fiction than in fact. ln T he Cruel Sea clergymen are described in the author's own words as "religious performers," and Herman Wouk, after guaranteeing in his preface to The Caine Mutiny that "the general obscenity and blasphemy of shipboard talk have gone almost unrecorded," makes his sailors use the Name of Christ in the most revolting concatena tions. (I am not criticising his right as an artist to reflect the real, but his seeming conviction that such oaths are unobjectionable.)

Poor ernsaderft

ITNFORTUNATELY, however, w` these descriptions are more than inaccurate.

A keen observer like the late Popski wrote in Private Army of his unit composed of Protestants and Catholics: "Neither in behaviour nor in argument did anyone ever display any interest in matters of faith. They were not ignorant, for they all had had a religious upbringing, but so completely unconcerned that they could not legitimately be described as Christians. We got on very well without religion," Nobody ought to have been surprised, after the bad metaphysics talked by metropolitan deans in between wars. And, as is shown in the repetitious Front Here to Eternity, all the time the astronomers were scanning the stars and neglecting the daisy at their feet, the blasphemy was being stockpiled with the bullets.

Nor was it extraordinary that those who "survived the battle and the cannon's deadly rattle" should behave with the irresponsibility of the characters in Rupert Lang's The Third Pip. But it was very sad : black-marketing crusaders did little to impress the vanquished with the lofty purpose of their intrusion.

,tbsence I regreil

SomE may argue, as I did in my 'salad days. that morality is no concern of the novelist. They may agree, as I do, with C. P. Snow, that a censorship which might deprive us of the excellence of Francois Mauriac as well as of the ineptitudes of Calder Willingham is to be resisted. They may remind me that Montaigne failed to find even in the regular army of his day One single company who fought to defend religion or law.

But I shall still think that the flaw in all these second war novels is the absence of regret that the vile should prevail. Regrets, of course, are dangerous artistically, but their presence as a background is at least as reasonable as their absence.

However. the debunking that these novels do is necessary, for it is right that non-combatants should know that men cannot kill other men with a psalm on their lips. Much of the profanity of soldiers and sailors is as Talleyrand defined it, "The means by which the inarticulate give themselves the impression of eloquence."

But before it becomes a habit blasphemy must always begin with a betrayal in the heart, and our civilisation will be saved only by loyalty to the Christian principles which made it.

The war novelists are not to be blamed for reporting this blasphemy; they are to be criticised only when they exaggerate it or connive at it.

Before war novelists can change, soldiers and sailors will have to change; and before soldiers and sailors can change we will all of us have to change and realise that we cannot live by Coca-cola and television alone,

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