[by Christopher Hitchens, posted here on Slate on Veteran’s Day 2011]
Pay attention when people make use of those terms, about “giving” or “losing” your life in wartime. Often, we have only the uncorroborated word of the losers that that is what they did. Either their lives were offered and accepted—this being the great act of sacrifice and solidarity honored since Pericles and the Gettysburg Address—or they were ruthlessly snatched away. In which latter case we have only the word of the generals and the kings and the politicians that this was indeed a legitimate deal. That, also, would be rather more like an accident.
…what happened to young John Kipling when he was posted “missing” at the end of one of the fiercest early battles of the First World War. His father Rudyard, upset that the boy was disqualified for the military because of his poor eyesight, had in effect smuggled him through customs so as to pass the minimal regulations. His agony, therefore, as to having effectively cheated his boy into vanishing in the trenches, can only be dimly guessed at.
As a kind of atonement, his father agreed to write the official history of his son’s Irish regiment and also to help design the official memorial to that strange idea, “The Unknown Soldier.” Unknown to whom?
In a mental hospital in Scotland were confined, because of their opposition to the war and their “battle fatigue,” men of the stature of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Just contrast what Kipling and Owen wrote. I’ll first cite Kipling:
Our statecraft, our learning,
Delivered them bound to the pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honor.
Not since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her!
… But who shall return us our children?
Wilfred Owen decided to rework the ancient Bible story of the binding and killing of Isaac by his father Abraham. If you recall, Abraham listened to his god’s instructions and carried them out until the last moment, whereupon an angel called him out of heaven, telling him to “offer the ram of pride instead” of Isaac. In Owen’s poem, the action follows this form until the angel makes an appearance. At this point, old man Abraham turns remorseless:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son.
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
But the whole article here is well worth reading all the way through.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.