Magazine | November 3, 2014, Issue


Heroic Drudgery

Regarding the otherwise excellent article by Charles C. W. Cooke in the September 8 issue (“A Gruesome Drudgery”), I must take exception in one matter. Cooke asserts that in the battles of 1914–18 there was little room for “chivalry or skill or heroism” (italics mine). This is quite mistaken. In the 1920s, veterans of the Great War such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis noticed a depressing revisionist trend in the literature of that conflict, one that stressed the irony of thousands of lives’ being wasted for small plots of shell-torn land. After the always-optimistic wartime propaganda, such revision was perhaps necessary, but as John Garth points out in Tolkien and the Great War, “it tends to be forgotten that many veterans resented the way their story was being told from 1926 onward, as a succession of disasters and discomforts with no gleam of achievement.” Tolkien wondered: “Are the prose and poetry of this age to be charged with disillusion and despair?”

Such a disenchanted view of war strips meaning from what many soldiers — then and now — see as the defining experience of their lives. This is why Tolkien’s later literary depiction of war consciously avoided the extremes of propaganda’s facile optimism or the wailing pessimism of protest, and it is why our writers today should consider that there is honor, and indeed majesty, in a just war won. If we’re not careful, a war literature that stresses only the tragedy and horror of war could someday produce a nation with a reflexive distaste for any war that might actually require placing “boots on the ground.”

Lieutenant Colonel Jason R. Zimmerman

Via e-mail

Charles C. W. Cooke Responds: By  suggesting that there was little room within the Great War for “chivalry or skill or heroism,” I intended to describe the deleterious effect that machine guns and heavy artillery had upon the battlefield, not to imply that there were no heroes of the conflict. When reading about the waves of men who were cut down the moment that they emerged above the lip of the trench, I was struck that one could be the finest soldier who had ever lived and still have no chance of survival. So many combatants were armed with little more than an Enfield rifle, and yet they were sent out to face the full might of the Industrial Revolution. That many men  derived a sense of great pride and purpose from the war is clear from their testimony. I was merely lamenting that the conditions were so brutal.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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