Saturday, 13 November 2010

"The pity of war"

Shakespeare's Othello is a soldier. He had killed his opponents in face-to-face combat and ordered others to kill. This is what gives him value in Venice. He is defined as a Moor and, while it's not clear quite what Shakespeare meant by this in terms of race, it makes one thing plain: away from his military role, Othello is an outsider. His family comes from elsewhere. He has one memento of his mother: a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries – and he has given this to Desdemona, the woman he loves and his new wife. Apart from that, he is as absorbed as he can be by his military role – until his meeting with Desdemona, the army has taken the place of family affections and loyalties. Of course he trusts his comrades in arms but he is their general. He is unprepared for their jealousy or scheming.

Often in Shakespeare's plays I find a single repeated word that seems to provide a guide to one of the themes of the play. In Othello, that word is pity. Speaking of his growing love for Desdemona as he recognized her love for him, Othello declares that he perceived her growing love when she heard the tale of his life and found it “wondrous pitiful.” He continues: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed/ And I loved her that she did pity them.”

Pity returns with renewed force when Othello is finally, wrongly convinced of Desdemona's infidelity. He cries out to the soldier who has deceived him, “But yet, the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it ...” At the end of the play, Othello, seeing Desdemona asleep in the bed where he will strangle her, is almost overcome by pity. But instead he does what he believes his honour requires – he strangles her. Then, realising too late that he was deceived, he kills himself.

I wonder if Wilfred Owen had that famous cry of Othello in mind when he coined his famous phrase “the pity of war.” He used it twice: in his poem “Strange Meeting” and in the roughly-drafted preface he sketched out for a collection of poems. He listed the topics that his poems would avoid – they include, heroes, glory and honour. Instead he states baldly: “My subject is War, and the pity of War.”

Wilfred Owen's attitude to war was inconsistent. At times he enjoyed battle – he wrote of one conflict “I lost my earthly faculties and fought like an angel.” He collected at least one souvenir from a dead German: a blood-spattered handkerchief which he sent as a present to his young brother. Yet he also wrote “I am a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience.”

Owen's attitude was typical of many soldiers in the First World War and later conflicts. Sometimes they were frightened, sometimes they suffered, sometimes they killed and sometimes they exulted in the sufferings of others. The same men who performed heroic actions could abuse prisoners, enjoy slaughter and then endure acute pain stoically. Soldiers, like Othello, need pity. So do the civilians and the friends and families of soldiers.

I'm uncomfortable about war memorials which urge us to honour “our glorious dead.” War isn't about glory. It's about people who are trained to kill carrying out orders. Sometimes they are killed. Plenty of civilians – including children – are killed and maimed by soldiers every year. The soldiers who survive have to live with what they did and what was done to them.

First World War soldiers often found a strange dissonance between the experience of trench warfare and the myth of heroism, honour and glory to which they returned on leave. We seem to be creating similar myths. “I don't care how you wear your poppy, so long as you wear your poppy with pride,” the British Legion's representative declared on TV. Soldiers – all soldiers – are routinely referred to as “heroes.” It's seen as bad taste to mention episodes of warfare that aren't heroic. Whatever horrors are committed by other countries' soldiers, we're supposed to believe that British soldiers never, ever behave like that.

It's strange. There's little support for this centuries' wars but the public tends to support the army and cheers the homecoming soldiers as heroes. Every so often we're asked to feel sorry for the soldiers and how they suffer – and I do pity them.

But soldiers are more than suffering heroes. They have inner lives and consciences. They are also trained killers and, although it's not often mentioned, many of them kill people. The people they kill are not always soldiers.

I've no wish to condemn the soldiers. I don't wish to be in their position – and, if I were, I expect that, for all my pacifism, I would end by acting in much the same way but with less efficiency. Soldiers deserve something more honest than a myth of heroism and glory.

Another brave soldier-poet, Keith Douglas, who fought in the Battle of El Alamein, looked coolly at himself as a killer and at the corpses of those he killed. In his poem “Vergissmeinicht” (Forget-me-not) he returns to the scene of a tank battle three weeks afterwards and finds the dead body of a soldier he killed. The emotions of the British soldiers are not pleasant; they see the abused and decaying body “almost with content.” But the discovery of a picture of the dead man's girlfriend reminds the poet that the dead man was not only a killer. The poem ends:

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

The pity of war indeed. The pity of it.

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