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Pat Barker and bloody moral dilemmas

The carnage of World War One devastated the poet Siegfried Sassoon who had earlier received “the MC for bringing back a wounded lance-corporal under heavy fire, and was later unsuccessfully recommended for the VC for capturing a German trench single-handedly” (DNB). While he was recovering from wounds in England in 1917 Sassoon bravely attacked the war,

‘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.'

Sassoon managed to have his statement read out in the House of Commons, and expected court martial. Instead the under-secretary for war declared him to be suffering from shell-shock, and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, where he met the psychologist Captain W. H. R. Rivers, who became a revered father figure to him.

Pat Barker made Rivers the hero of her great First World War trilogy Regeneration. At a time when repression was encouraged, Rivers believed that the ugly, almost unbearable memories and feelings experienced by men who survived war had to be faced. They could not be buried or the men would not survive. Rivers also questioned the morality of sending young men back into the war.

In Barker’s just-published novel, Life Class, set immediately before and during the First World War, two young art students, Elinor and Paul, respond to the war in very different ways. Those ways appear to contradict each other, but they seem to me to embody two wise human responses.

Elinor doggedly refuses to squander any mental and emotional energy on the war and its destruction. When Paul suggests her views might change if her brother were killed, she defiantly responds,

“The last thing I'd want to do is paint any part of what killed him. I'd go home, I'd paint the places we knew and loved when we were growing up together. I'd paint what made him, not what destroyed him.”

In contrast, Paul, who was floundering as an art student before the war, finds his strength as an artist by depicting what he saw as a Red Cross volunteer on the battlefields. His horrified art teacher says, “I don't see how you could ever show that anywhere.” For Paul, this is art that has to be shown. It is art as witness.

Eventually Sassoon decided to rejoin his old battalion in France. In July 1918 he was wounded again, this time in the head, which finished his military service. In 1918, he published Counter Attack, his "savagely realistic and compassionate war poems" (DNB).

What to paint, what to write, whether to fight. As Pat Barker remarked in an interview, "Fiction should be about moral dilemmas that are so bloody difficult that the author doesn't know the answer.”

Winston Churchill's efforts to shorten the war can be found here.


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