World War I: The Enduring Cost

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that 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 the 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 sufferings 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 upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The statement is from Siegfried “Mad Jack” Sassoon. His declaration of war against War is as concise as Lincoln’s commemoration at Gettysburg: Sassoon’s 235 words to Lincoln’s 272. The quote is given in full because its accusation is relevant today, almost one hundred years after it appeared in The Times on 31 July 1917. Then and now, war is the parlor game of hawks, who themselves have skirted military obligation through connections and wealth. Politicians create it, perpetuate it, and regular, ordinary people die in it.

Sassoon, a highly decorated officer, had seen Death in the trenches. His brother Hamo had died at Gallipoli in 1915, a military catastrophe that should have ended Churchill’s career. Sassoon’s near-suicidal acts of bravery were legendary among the men in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The tipping point, however, came in March of 1916 when a close friend of his in the Battalion, David Thomas, had been shot in the throat. Thomas walked in from No Man’s Land to the first-aid station and choked to death on his own blood. His death would haunt Sassoon for the rest of his life.

Sassoon would have been court-martialed for that letter had it not been for the intercession of poet and comrade-in-arms Robert Graves, who pled for clemency before the Review Board. Sassoon had not only criticized the war and the politicians; he had refused to serve. Graves would convince the authorities that Sassoon should not be prosecuted for treason because he suffered from neurasthenia, the convoluted term of the day for ‘shell shock.’ In a word, Sassoon was out of his head and could not be held accountable for his actions or words. Sassoon was shipped off to the military hospital at Craiglockhart in Scotland, where he underwent psychoanalysis with psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers. Other treatments for ‘shell shock’ at the time included physical exercise, hot and cold baths, and shock therapy. While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon mentored Wilfred Owen. Sense of perspective: the United States had entered the war in April 1917, Owen died in April of 1918, and Sassoon would later enter politics, find religion, and die in 1967. Pat Barker would fictionalize Sassoon’s convalescence in the novel (and later movie) Regeneration.

Shell shock, war weariness, battle fatigue are all locutions for what we now call PTSD. Neurasthenia was the term applied to officers, whereas the enlisted men were dismissed as slackers, or worse: hysterics. Nerves and nervousness were psychosomatic conditions associated with women, although we now know that artillery explosions can cause neurological damage, and alter behavior. In 1917, “shell shock” would disappear from the literature. Another euphemism appeared: NYDN, or Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous, which the men called, Not Yet Dead Nearly.



(Image from Quora.)

Then and now, the emotional fallout of war is not to be discussed because it is unmanly, less than dutiful, a badge of shame. In 1943, General Patton slapped Pvt. Charles H. Kuhl for saying, “I guess I can’t take it.” Patton could not understand why the soldier was there in the hospital since he had no visible wounds. Patton slapped him, yes, but what had not been mentioned at the time to the public was that Patton had drawn his revolver and shoved it in the young man’s face. A detailed report of the incident went to General Omar Bradley, who locked it up in his safe and did nothing. The incident made news only after a doctor on the scene sent a report to Eisenhower’s surgeon general, Brigadier General Frederick A. Blessé. Eisenhower scorched Patton and exiled him to Sicily.

While that detail is from another time and another war, the culture of hierarchy, of testosterone-addled machismo remained — still remains — albeit the military claims to acknowledge PTSD — treat it, and trains troops to prevent it in training. Today, numerous organizations, either government-sponsored or veteran-founded, help veterans deal with PTSD. Organizations such as The Heroes Project and Team Rubicon have generated public awareness about PTSD and assisted veterans with re-entry into society.

However, the men who seek help are often stigmatized. Charles Durning, Lee Marvin, Audie Murphy, Louis Hayward – these are all veterans from WW II who suffered horribly from PTSD in silence. They and others would suffer from alcoholism, depression, nightmares, inexplicable bouts of rage, and survivor’s guilt. Hayward might not be a familiar name to most readers. Louis Hayward, a Marine captain, supervised the photography corps during the amphibious assault on Tarawa in 1943. For four sleepless days, he endured artillery fire, avoided sniper fire, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat, while documenting the slaughter of six thousand men. He quietly came home a shattered man. His marriage to Ida Lupino crumbled.

Sassoon had dared to question the insanity of his day, only to be labeled temporarily insane. Perhaps Sassoon the poet had glimpsed the tribal truth: that humans like to kill each other, but can neither acknowledge this instinct nor sustain it. Deep down human beings seem to know that to kill is wrong and endless slaughter will only make the mind and body break and rebel. The fact remains, however, that that those in the echelons of power above or those in the society below do not want to know that, despite all the rhetoric about patriotism and sacrifice, blood is thirst and it must be shed. War might be Hell, uncivilized, but it is also the mark of Cain, then and now.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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One Response to World War I: The Enduring Cost

  1. Susan Ostrem says:

    Thanks for the article. It’s well-writen and illuminates a subject I heard about in my childhood. My Uncle Ted had “battle fatigue”. He joined the Army at 17 and was in B-17 bombing raids over Germany. He ended up in a Veteran’s Hospital for many months. He was a gentle soul. I think the war was too much for him. He died at 31 of a stroke.

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