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  • Writer's pictureThe Friendly Fogey

They Began To Laugh

The sense of guilt which is born in every man, and is willing to operate without reasonable cause, had here abundant food, and for long we had been sick with masochism. This could be seen in the strange propaganda against the Treaty of Versailles which was carried on year in and year out by ordinary English people, who had never read a line of it and perhaps not even known anybody that had, who had never visited the Continent, and were not receiving instructions from any political party. These people utterly ignored the work the peace treaties had done in liberating the smaller nations, monstrously exaggerated the hardships inflicted by their economic clauses, which, indeed, for the most part were completely inoperative, and, what was most remarkable, seemed utterly ungrateful for the clauses which aimed at making it impossible for Germany to repeat her attack on England and France. They had lost all sense that it is sometimes necessary to fight for one’s life; and many children born in the decade after the Great War can never have had heard a word from their parents and teachers which suggested that their country had or could have been actuated by any motive except stupid and credulous jingoism in taking up arms in 1914. The idea of self-preservation was as jealously hidden from the young as the facts of sex had been in earlier ages. Thus England, not a perverse left-wing England that cared not what price it paid so long as it brought down the established order of society in ruins, but conservative, mediocre England, put itself in a position of insecurity unique in history by raising a generation of young men to whom the idea of defending their nation was repugnant not so much by reason of the danger involved (though indeed they were now often instructed in fear as in other times boys had been instructed in courage) as because they could not believe it would in any circumstance be necessary… The fault was not decadence but the desire for holiness, the belief in sacrifice, and a willingness to serve as the butchered victim acceptable to God.
Now we in England stood alone. Now we, who had been unchallenged masters of the world, were poor and beset like the South Slavs. The brightness of an exceptional summer was about us, and we believed that this would immediately be blotted out by an eternal night. But the experience was not so disagreeable as might be supposed, for we had lost our desire to die without defending ourselves, and it was that, not danger, which was horrifying. The most terrible death is subject to the same limitations as the most beautiful girl, it can only give what it has got. But voluntarily to play a part in an act of cruelty, to subscribe to a theory of the universe which supposes a God capable of showering down blessings in return for meaningless bloodshed, that is to initiate a process of degradation which is infinite, because it is imaginary and not confined within the limits of reality. From that hell we were suddenly liberated, by forces which it is hard to name. Perhaps the Germans, by the nastiness of their campaigns, acquainted us beyond all possible doubt with the squalor of this rite in which we were about to be involved. Perhaps there is a balance in our souls which is hung truly between life and death, and rights itself if it swings over too far in the direction of death. Such an equipoise can be noted in Shakespeare's King Lear, which above all other works of art illuminates the sacrificial myth: he set out to prove that the case for cruelty is unanswerable, because kindness, even when it comes to its fine flower in love, is only a cloak for ravening and treachery, and at the end cries out that love is the only true jewel in the universe, that if we have not found it yet we must go on mining for it till ere find it. So we go deep into the darkness and recoil to light in the supreme work of our English literature, and that was our course in the supreme crisis of our history. We offered up to death all our achievement, all that was ours down to our physical existence, and over-night we took that offer back. The instrument of our suicidal impetus, Neville Chamberlain, who had seemed as firmly entrenched in our Government as sugar in the kidneys of a diabetic patient, all at once was gone. We had sloughed our John Cantacuzenus. Now we were led by Winston Churchill, who cannot be imagined as wanting to die, though he would die if a more liberal allowance of life would be released by his death, if it were the necessary price to pay for the survival of his country. Thereafter all was easier.
While France was falling, and after she had fallen, my husband and I went every evening to walk for an hour in the rose-garden in Regent's Park. Under the unstained heaven of that perfect summer, curiously starred with the silver elephantines of the balloon barrage, the people sat on the seats among the roses, reading the papers or looking straight in front of them, their faces white. Some of them walked among the rose-beds, with a special earnestness looking down on the bright flowers and inhaling the scent, as if to say, ‘That is what roses are like. That is how they smell. We must remember that, down in the darkness.’ There is a lake beside the rose-garden, in which there is a little island, where dwarf and alpine plants are cultivated among rocks. Across the Chinese bridge that joins it to the mainland there slowly moved a procession, as grave in their intention to see the gay fragilities between the stones as if they were going to a lying-in-state. The English, as the old woman on the Montenegrin mountains had said, love nature. Most of these people believed, and rightly, that they were presently to be subjected to a form of attack more horrible than had ever before been directed against the common man. Let nobody belittle them by pretending they were fearless. Not being as the ox and the ass, they were horribly afraid. But their pale lips did not part to say the words that would have given them security and dishonour.
What they foresaw befell them. No kind hand stretched down from the sky to reward them for their gallantry and keep them safe. Instead bombs dropped; many were maimed and killed, and made homeless, and all knew the humiliating pain of fear. Then they began to laugh. Among the roses, when safety was theirs for a word, they had not even smiled. Now, though their knees knocked together, though their eyes were glassy with horror, they joked from sunset, when the sirens unfurled their long flag of sound, till dawn, when the light showed them the annihilation of dear and familiar things. But they were not merely stoical. They worked, they fought like soldiers, but without the least intoxication that comes of the joy in killing, for they could only defend themselves, they could not in any way attack their assailants. In this sobriety, men and women went out and dug among the ruins for the injured while bombs were still falling, and they turned on fire, which it is our nature to flee, and fought it at close range, night after night, week after week, month after month. There have been heroes on the plains of Troy, on the Elizabethan seas, on the fields Flanders, in the Albanian mountains that go down to the sea, but none of them was more heroic than these.

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

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