lunes, 8 de octubre de 2012

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett clearly sets out to offer a mildly propagandist view of the First World War. Within a few pages of the start of its survey of sites of recent action in France and Belgium, we have learned that - apparently immutably - on the one hand France and its culture represent just about the pinnacle of human achievement, while on the other everything German is barbaric, aggressive and wantonly destructive. But by the end of the book, even Arnold Bennett seems no more than merely exhausted, merely bombed-out, like the skeletal remains of the city of Ypres he was then describing. It is this transformation through the progress of this short book that makes it still worth reading.

Where Vera Brittain’s Testament Of Youth sees the consequences of the first World War’s conflict in generally human terms, Arnold Bennett approaches his descriptive task with the sentiment and mission of a propagandist. He was there to fly the flag, there is no doubt. But he had already lived for several years in France and was also a professional journalist. Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front is therefore less of a personal reflection and more of an attempt to provide a - theoretically, at least - dispassionate, if committed and one-sided view of the conflict.

Today, passages that scorn German tactics because they seem bent on the destruction of architectural heritage read as merely quant. We all know that the reality of war demands destruction, especially of symbols of power and identity. As an example, one wonders what the strategic value was of bending flat a grotesquely over-sized metal Saddam Hussein? Precisely none, since this was clearly an act driven by its symbolism. We also know that scruples are not ammunition in war and that defenders and aggressors alike often hide behind the communally sacrosanct, first for potential cover and second for the potential propaganda value should the first aim fail. When Arnold Bennett expresses anger at German shelling of Gothic cathedrals in places such as Rheims, one wonders, given the opportunity, what he might have made of carpet bombing of German cities in World War Two? We know that his view would have remained partisan, but such a stance was only to be expected, given his journalistic associations and the politics of his employers.

It is when Arnold Bennett is touring the destroyed city of Ypres that the doubts really begin to surface. Bennett was a believer in the worth of everyday experience. As a novelist he at least aspired to the basing of his work on quite ordinary lives, believing them to be inherently of interest because of their simple humanity. In Ypres he describes the wrecked houses of ordinary people who were forced out, bombed out, chased away or merely killed. Questions clearly arise in his mind about the nature of war, but they never quite become explicit enough to demand answer.

Over There: War Scenes On The Western Front by Arnold Bennett is a short book that is worthy of re-reading today for two reasons. One is Arnold Bennett’s journalistic ability to describe what he saw. Through this he is able to provide a vivid and reasonably accurate account of day-to-day warfare in the trenches. But secondly, Arnold Bennett writes from the committed, partisan position of a man of his times. There is no detachment in his view, only commitment and conviction. This reminds us that in times of war, at least for the protagonists, there is no scope for detachment, since taking sides is part of the action.

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