Soldiers

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

 

If I should die” …. a thought that must have crossed the minds of soldiers several times. Fear, sense of loss, homesickness are the common feelings that follow that painful moment of awareness, which takes the form of death. It “puzzles the will“, Hamlet mused and can make us cowards, but for Rupert Brooke the sacrifice of one’s life for his own country ought not to be feared, but quite the contrary, particularly if that country is England. In his patriotic poem, “The Soldier”, in fact, Brooke sings the love for his country, and how noble and glorious dying for that country would be and how noble and glorious an English soldier is. Just like in Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” this pre-war poem is still full of the imperialistic ideal of the superiority of the English troops in their civilising missions all over the world. This English soldier seems to be a sort of god, who does not fear death. He is serene, as he believes that wherever he will die, that place will be forever England.

I can assure you that for non-English readers, this is a very striking line. The idea that and an English soldier once dead with his dust could somehow “fertilize” any “foreign land” with the seeds of Englishness, turning it into a better and richer place is  undoubtedly a powerful picture of English patriotism and nationalism. English indeed. The war Brooke images, is somewhat idyllic, there is no blood, dirt, cold, fear and death is represented only in its most glorious form. He didn’t have much time to experience how far this picture from reality was, in fact, he died of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite while en route to Gallipoli with the Navy. He was 27.

The truth, we know, is different. There is nothing idyllic in any war, much less World War I.  Soldiers spent endless days in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side. War had prolonged too much and millions of people had already died. In July of 1917 poet Siegfried Sassoon sent the following open letter to his commanding officer and refused to return to the trenches:

Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
July, 1917.

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. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

For those who did not have enough imagination to realise the horrors of the war and continued to use the powerful means of propaganda to recruit young innocent lives, Wilfred Owen lifted the veil which covered the truth in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…”

These opening lines of Owen’s poem smash Brooke’s epic narration. English soldiers are not young upright fearless Adonis, but look mostly like “beggars” and “hags” , who are “bent double” with fatigue, fear, cold, sickness and whose native “gentleness” has given way to rudeness and curse. They are young men who have become quickly old, once abruptly abandoned their world of innocence.

“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”

 

This is what war is: struggle to survive, dirt, blood, pain, death. Hence, there is nothing sweet and glorious to die for one’s country, Owen concludes, quoting Horace, but it is only a  terrible lie. Owen died in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.

 

“Si sta come
d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie.”
(It feels like in autumn on the trees leaves.) (Soldati, Giuseppe Ungaretti)

 

Masters and Fridays

Robinson is by no means the forerunner of that model colonizer Kipling had in mind in his “White Man’s Burden” and certainly the one who actually demonstrates how right and natural the superiority of the white man can be. After many years of permanence on the desert island Robinson is eventually allowed to enjoy the pleasure of society again, well, a small society, as his new companion is a Carib cannibal he had rescued from being murdered and eaten by two of his mates.

Now, even if we have one big island for two people only, it is interesting to point out that the relationship between the two belongs, from the beginning, to the master and servant kind and, mind, it is not only a matter of gratitude as Robinson had saved the native’s life, it is natural:

“..he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a many antick gestures to show it.(…..)At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.”

So Robinson doesn’t even need weapons to subjugate and submit him, he finds himself with his foot on the native’s head as he instinctively understands the white man’s superiority. This act is very potent in effect and inhuman in some way, but Robinson doesn’t feel uncomfortable with it at all, and he doesn’t even attempt to remove his foot from the native’s head. That foot is exactly where it ought to be.

It is also interesting to spend a few words of the choice of proper names. The native must have his own name, but Robinson is not interested in the least in knowing it, and let alone, learn it, so, he calls him Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life. Yet, as soon as Friday can understand him, he teaches him to call  him “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.

Now that the rules of cohabitation are set, Robinson proceeds with putting successfully in place that colonizing model Kipling will outline one day. Subjugate first and then educate. Robinson starts teaching him good manners. If they had to share their meals, well, it should be done properly:

“..I gave him some milk in an earthen pot, and let him see me drink it before him, and sop my bread in it; and I gave him a cake of bread to do the like, which he quickly comply’d with, and made signs that it was very good for him.”

Of course, we teachers know that it takes a certain amount of time to learn rules and procedures properly, in fact, even if Friday seems sincerely to enjoy his bread and milk, he is still a cannibal at heart and candidly takes Robinson to the place where the two dead bodies of his captors were buried with the aim of, well, eating them, with Robinson of course:

“….at this I appeared very angry, expressed my abhorrence of it, made as if I would vomit at the thoughts of it, and beckoned with my hand to him to come away, which he did immediately, with great submission.”

What a waste of good meat, Friday must have thought, but having understood to have done something his master considers wrong, he regards wiser to keep on with those acts of submission which worked so well.

Afterwards, Robinson decides to cover Friday’s nakedness giving him some clothes ” at which he seemed very glad, for he was stark naked” he presumes. Now, I suppose, being in the Caribbean, that is, very hot, Friday must always have enjoyed his nudity, as he had never associated it to sin as white men do, so there is no real reason why he should truly be very glad, but of course, Defoe couldn’t have written otherwise. The last and final step is Friday’s conversion to Christianity. Thus, Robinson accomplishes with the task of the “White Man’s Burden”, which eventually consists in wiping out the culture of the subjugated peoples, which is wrong and evil, and replacing it with the right and good one of the white rulers.

Robinson doesn’t even undergo Kurtz’s transformation once surrounded by the power of nature and the contact with the natives. He is a son of the Enlightenment ,after all, which boasted the excellence of man and the power of his reason, rather than the weakness of his soul. Robinson sees no horror, as Kurtz eventually does. The world for him is rightly divided into two categories: Masters and Fridays.

Piercing the Veil of Hypocrisy

Heart of Darkness

If propaganda is a reality devoid of facts, a convincing narration which bewitches our reason, well, the bard of the wonder of colonization was doubtless, Kipling, while it was Conrad who lifted the veil that covered the embarassing truth. He resisted the charm of the sirens’  songs of his age and in a voyage down the river Congo, he saw with his own eyes the darkest side of the empire, its heart, a “Heart of Darkness”.

The assumption that the civilizing mission of western cultures was essentially a moral duty, was based on the rooted idea of the undiscussed superiority of the white man. By the way, as for many grand enterprises, the continuous effort in term of cost and people involved had become a “burden” in time, a noble burden, for sure, so that the Americans, as emerging power, were invited by Kipling to share with the Britons their mission in his poem:” The White Man’s Burden“. Kipling explained that the mission consisted in sending the “best breed” of a nation into “exile” to  –  pay attention – “serve”  the “captives’ needs”. Being “newly caught”, they were not able to understand the stroke of luck that had fallen on them and could be unwilling to be taught the customs of the white man.The empire’s civilizing mission apparently was at the service of the natives who were seen as “fluttered”, “wild”,”sullen”, in short  : “half devil and half child”.  It is a powerful symbology indeed, as ” devil” refers to the natives’ evil, dangerous and sinful nature, that is why the word “mission” , with its religious connotations, acquires even a higher meaning,  while their being at the same “child”  reinforces the idea of their inferiority, which is due to their naivety and ignorance. 

However, it is when Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is traveling down the river Congo through the wilderness on a steam boat and eventually manages to “open a reach” that the veil of the hypocrisy of colonization is definitely pierced.  His eyes are wide open to an unexpected reality, which metaphorically seems to blind him at first. A light is thrown on the dark side of the “mission”:

“A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

It is a ” scene of inhabited devastation”. Pointless activities have caused a “waste of excavations” and an early deforestation. Useless pieces of machinery are scattered everywhere and lie on the ground like rotten carcasses of animals. It is a scene of both physical and moral death. The natural noise of the rapids is replaced by the deafening sound of the horn which anticipates a “dull detonation” which shakes the ground. He sees the natives running away fearful, trying to find a shelter under a “clump of trees”. These men are “mostly black and naked” and move about “like ants”. Six of them pass him by. They are chained, ragged, silent :

“I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

Marlow’s conclusion does not leave room for any doubt:

“these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. ” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

But an effective storytelling could.

The White Man’s Burden

wm1When Theodore Roosevelt read  Rudyard Kipling ‘s poem: “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”, was so very favourably impressed that he copied the poem and sent it to his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge with the following comment : “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view“. The publication of the poem in McClure’s Magazine in February 1899  coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. In his poem Kipling invited the U.S: to take up the “burden” of the empire, as Britain and other European nations had done. Kipling thought that the white man had the duty to help the less fortunate peoples of the empire and the goodness of their civilizing mission would have crushed any resented opposition even if, choosing the word “burden” to define this glorious accomplishment, Kipling somehow underlined that it was not such a simple task. More than one hundred years after the publication of this poem, just reading through the pages of any newspaper, we know there must have been something underrated in that optimistic vision.

wm2The fact is that the “civilising mission” consisted not only in expanding a more modern economic and social system – certainly more for the sake of the civilizers rather than the  civilized – but imposing those values and habits typical of western cultures without caring much of the sensibility of the “captives” that Kipling defined in the poem “half devil and half child”. In these last two expressions there is all the blindness and hypocrisy of an age. The natives were seen as devils, that is “sullen”, dark , evil; therefore, they needed to be redeemed. At this point we should remember the role of the Church in promoting the idea of the expansion of the empire as fundamental for the spreading of the Christian faith. Since the discovery of America, economic and religious issues had always gone hand in hand, in fact. However, that childish trait should have made easier the “salvation” of those poor souls, because of their “natural” naivety and gullibility. Needless to say that such representation earned Kipling bitter accusations of racism.

wm3Certainly in those words there was nothing new, but a prejudice which had been commonly shared for ages; therefore, the civilizing mission of the white man was deliberately indifferent of those values expressed by the cultures of the subdued peoples of the empire, which were considered inferior. Even Robinson Crusoe, after all, was a prototype of this vision. He feeds Friday, teaches him British good manner and even if they are alone on a desert island the master and servant relationship is preserved: Robinson wants to be called “Master” and names his companion “Friday”, rather than giving him a proper name; therefore, he does not seem to consider him a person, he just wants him to remember the day Robinson/ the Master saved him and then he proceeds with his own private civilizing mission. Had he been interested, he would have made the effort to ask his name, but maybe it sounded too democratic for the time.

Sikh officers of the British 15th Punjab Infantry regiment, shortly after the Indian Mutiny, 1858But is it really possible to cohabit just fixing the rules of a master/servant relationship based on an alleged superiority, without caring about the nature of that servant? There is a great risk, in fact. It could happen that  the Fridays in the world one day might rebel, just because of the carelessness of a Robinson for whom a little detail may be meaningless, while it is, actually, so meaningful for them, just like a trivial cartridge, for instance. We are talking about the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The British had issued the Sepoys, the native Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army, with new gunpowder cartridges. To load their rifles, the soldiers had to bite the cartridge first, but this simple action was considered an insult to both Hindus and Muslims, as they believed that the cartridges they were supplied with were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims and tallow (cow fat) which angered the Hindus, as cows were equal to goddess to them. The Sepoys’ British officers regarded these claims unimportant, and suggested to grease a batch of the new cartridges with beeswax or mutton fat.  For the Sepoys this was evidence that the original cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow. Hence, a meaningless cartridge became the cause of a meaningful uprising that in all Indian History books is regarded as India’s first War of Independence.

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