Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Good Soldier

This started out as a simple factoid but grew into larger issues.  I quite often learn by explaining.

Until recently biographers and commenters on JRR Tolkien have taken him at his word that he was not a good soldier during WWI.  He believed he had done his duty but little more, and he specifically referenced his character of Sam Gamgee as the sort of person he thought a better soldier than he. 

The great Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert disagreed, and has taken some pains to contact Tolkien biographers and expositers and give them some background.  He knew Tolkien in the 1960s at Oxfford and became friendly because Tolkien, as a Roman Catholic and Gilbert, a Jew, were not permitted to sit at the high table with the Anglicans and so got to know each other well despite a more than 40-year difference in age. He got only a little out of Tolkien about the Great War - unsurprising, given the times - but did later see that he had been told some things that had not made it into the general knowledge.  Also, when he did his research for the Churchill books, he discovered a curious fact, that many WWI veterans described themselves as "not a good soldier" and even "a bad soldier." He decided that they could not all have been bad soldiers, and began to add this puzzle to his interviewing and his research. 

He found that WWI soldiers, when asked who had been good soldiers, invariably identified those who had died. While the army, navy, and government would identify acts of heroism among the living and award them, the servicemen themselves did not mention this. Gilbert, knowing this by the time people were writing that his friend Tollers was being called a bad soldier, did a bit of research - he admits not exhaustive - and found that all indications were that he had been an excellent soldier. But the survivors didn't say that then.  They never got together and decided this was going to be the party line, of course.  But this was their culture, and they likely observed this in each other and wordlessly, even unconsciously, adopted this as the fitting response.

We have little conception what this was like. We have a volunteer army that is a small percentage of our population and do not comprehend the experience of other nations where many many were killed, many women widowed, and many children left fatherless. Individuals in our midst have some idea, yet even those do not have the experience of high school reunions that never happen because half the men are dead at 20, with graves untended and already being forgotten. Tolkien had a group of four close friends before the war.  Only he and one other survived, so two of his three best friends before the war were killed, and 75% of his friends in the army. There are a few sections of LOTR that describe the death and destruction of war in WWI terms, such as the Dead Marshes and Frodo's emergence from them to the blasted destroyed lands outside of Mordor, and the repeated theme of honoring the dead. It is true that many cultures honor the dead and even the ancestors in general, so it is not unique to Northern mythologies nor to Tolkien, but it is quite prominent throughout, even in details such as the reference to the maker of the blade that killed the Nazgul

So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the D√Ľnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.

Tolkien honored the dead throughout the work, and his characters who survive battles always make light of their own part.

We call it "survivor's guilt" now, and we used to try and reassure veterans out of it, reminding them that this was not their fault, they should not feel this way, etc.  Yet I spoke with a friend who had moved to working with PTSD vets in the VA, who said that he and at least some others up here are not viewing it that way anymore.  In the first place, saying "Don't feel that way" is pretty silly to begin with.  But he also has begun to believe that anything that occurs this spontaneously and naturally across many people must come from our culture, our genetics, or some combination.  It is not just an aberration, but something that works at some deep level for either the tribe or the individual. I asked my friend, who had grown up Roman Catholic but was now mostly nonpracticing (that changed when his daughter turned five, BTW, an example that I might humorously relate to Reviviscence without his permission), if this was related to the idea of us sacramentally sharing in the suffering of Christ with our own suffering. I clearly caught him off-guard with this, but he nodded that there was perhaps some deep psychological mechanism at work here.  I would say that it was a deep spiritual mechanism that therefore influenced our psychology, but don't insist on it. He, at any rate, thought there was something long-standing in our make-up of honoring the dead by sharing in their suffering in this way, with the surviving soldiers being the bridge between the living and the dead.  I am putting it much more neatly in retrospect than what he actually said.  I wish I could discuss this with him, but he died a few years ago. For reference, if it gives any hint to you, he was a Vietnam combat vet from one of the heavily-purple areas of small-town Pennsylvania, who was alternatively an extreme libertarian and completely apolitical after living in NH for a few years and working as a psychologist. You can see why I would miss having him to talk to about issues like this.

8 comments:

GraniteDad said...

More than any other war, I feel the most alienated from WWI soldiers. Other wars were cruel, and people committed crimes, but WWI was both older in the style of guns, knives, etc. but also newer in that trench warfare combined with gassing of troops created this malaise and hopelessness that newer wars didn't have. This isn't some new insight- others have mentioned how much the deaths of WWI decimated the youth and spirit of Britain and the other allied men. In WW2 or Vietnam you can sense how you might act in those scenarios. But in WWI, the idea of being shelled for years and having your trench gassed, while staying in the same spot for 12 months is mind-boggling. I'm surprised any of the men from the trenches lived to adulthood.

Grim said...

Excellent post. Thank you.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. I expect you will have a better exposition of all this in about a year or so after the twenty-'leven topics I flew over work their way through your thinking.

james said...

I remember reading somewhere (I couldn't remember where when the subject came up back in '07, so it was a long time ago) that some AmerIndian tribes had ritual purification for their fighters after a war, and that the Orthodox encouraged a kind of confession for soldiers, to be forgiven of things they had no choice but do.

Kevin said...

The veterans of that war were not one united body except perhaps at Armistice Day ( speaking of then Empire countries, not the U.S.), but some ( not veterans) saw them as such, and as a threat. D.H. Lawrence thought they were as the FreiKorps were in defeated Germany, and thought Australia would go fascist because of them, in the 1930s. Until they were all dead it was not rare to read disparaging comments about them from younger Leftists. It is only ( to those whose horizons extend further than the attention span of a gerbil) recently that that generation and those men have been airbrushed, culturally. ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ by Peter Jackson could not have been made, or received well by that fraction of society who saw them as a road block to ‘Progressivism’.
Wildly, absurdly wrong then, wildly, absurdly false now. My grandfather would never speak of it, and no veteran I ever met could be described as a ‘community organiser’. Community minded and intolerant of fools, yes.
Perhaps that’s why.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Kevin - yes, "Colonel Blimp" was disdained and hated by the progressives, though he did enjoy a rehabilitation as WWII started. Chesterton wrote that WWI had not really been completed, and lamented that much of the general public had come to believe that the stories of German atrocities in Belgium (and I imagine elsewhere) were exaggerations and not true, while the accusations against the British troops were largely justified, even though they came from such a poisoned source. GKC proved prophetic, though he didn't live to see it fulfilled. I wrote about Colonel Blimp a bit ten years ago. https://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2010/08/chicago-versus-barmen-ii.html

dmoelling said...

My grandfather was in France with the AEF in 1918. He was in the field artillery with Capt Harry Truman (future president). They fought in the Vosges Mountains (a quiet area) and in the Meuse Argonne battle. He did not talk much about the war except to sing some wartime songs. I especially liked "We don't want the bacon, what we want is a piece of the Rhine". He never did much with the American Legion after the war but he did belong to a "last man society"/Tontine. I remember at his funeral the surviving battery crew brought a flag and the bottle of brandy that the last man alive was to drink for a short ceremony. I was too young to really understand it. I think WWII vets had it a bit better in that the causes of the war were undeniable, Hitler and Tojo were truly cruel despots. In WWI it was not that clear. My family were all of German Extraction (originally Huguenots who escaped to north germany) as were most of the midwest. The AEF occupation troops on the border of France and Germany after the armistice were puzzled about the original causes of the war and why they were still there.

Jonathan said...

Thanks, AVI.