Finished with the War
A Soldier's Declaration
"I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."
Pretty powerful stuff, huh? Seems like an eloquent and succinct response to our present wars by someone in a position to speak with authority, doesn't it? Does it come as a surprise to anyone that this was written in 1917? (Yes, I realize the photo may have tipped you off.) Siegfried Sassoon was an English soldier and poet fighting in WWI, the Great War, the War to End All Wars. This declaration was even read in the House of Commons. WWI has not quite taken on the aura of romance and nobility that WWII has, but its image has gotten a bit rosey over the years. It's good to have records like this from the time.
Maybe there aren't exact corrollaries on every count. Our government, for example, has been quite good at giving clear, even simplistic statements about the purposes of this war, it just has also felt perfectly free to change those purposes whenever it likes. Sassoon's theory that clear goals would make it impossible to change them hasn't proven true in our case. I don't know if that's because it would have never been true, or because we are simply a different culture somehow, more jaded perhaps about the lies of politicians. Nor do I fully understand his statement about not criticizing the conduct of the war, unless what he means is his complaints are directed at the government, not the military. There might be some similarities there to our situation, Abu Graib and Black Water aside.
Lest I appear to be presenting this solely as an earnest yet smug inditement of our leaders, Sassoon's last statement comes as a dash of cold water to my own face. How much am I part of that callous, complacent majority lacking the imagination to understand the agonies overseas? I need to think about my own actions as much or more than anything else.
If you enjoy historical fiction, I can't recommend Pat Barker's WWI Trilogy highly enough; the books are Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. The books follow Dr. William Rivers, a real person who was one of the first British Freudian Psycho-analysts. (On a side note, he was also the older brother of the little girl who inspired the Alice Stories of Lewis Carroll. ) Rivers was enlisted by the British government to treat soldiers suffering from 'neurasthenia', which seems to be a fancy term for shell-shock, and might today be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His orders were to do all he could to return the soldiers to active duty. Sassoon was a decorated soldier with many acts of heroism to his name, so when he made this statement public, the army decided he must of course be suffering from a mental breakdown so they packed him off to Dr. Rivers' hospital.
If you're fearing that reading these books would be one long punishing slide into despair, let me try to reassure you. Yes, many things of a horrific nature are dealt with in the books, as they would have to be, but they are fast moving, eloquent, even funny books full of well-realized characters, believable relationships, and from what I understand, rich historical details. I've read the entire series at least twice, and last night at 3am found myself picking up Regeneration again, which opens with Sassoon's declaration. They're well worth it, if this topic or kind of writing appeals to you at all.