Academic journal article Style

Representing Experience and Reasserting Identity: The Rhetoric of Combat in British Literature of World War I

Academic journal article Style

Representing Experience and Reasserting Identity: The Rhetoric of Combat in British Literature of World War I

Article excerpt

No matter what theoretical systems or prejudices critics bring to their readings of the literature of the First World War, most inevitably remark upon the military's manipulation of the new recruit during its endeavors to mold him into a nameless, faceless, subservient subject. In one such recent study, a thoughtful exploration of how different institutional languages influenced Wilfred Owen's poetic voice, Douglas Kerr pauses momentarily to note how "[t]he army took away a man's power while it increased his strength.... The dream of the army's training manual was of a totally controlled, totally efficient society, in which each soldierly body performed the tasks for which it had been moulded, so reliable an instrument that ideally the whole thing could still function ... without supervision" (156). Many soldier-authors tended thus to highlight that feature of anonymity, both in life, when they are portrayed as unnamed individuals swept up in a futile contest, and in death, when corpses are indistinguishable from one another not only because of their massive numbers but because the filthy, rotting condition of many bodies made identification difficult.(1) This trend emerged in diverse forms, like Charles Hamilton Sorley's "When you see millions of the mouthless dead" and "A hundred thousand million mites we go" or Isaac Rosenberg's chilling "Dead Man's Dump," where the wheels of the army's vehicles lurch "over sprawled dead / But pained them not, though their bones crunched, / Their shut mouths made no moan" (7-9).(2) In each case, the poet emphasizes the victim's lack of voice and resultant silence, broken only by the sound, in Rosenberg's version, of crunching bones. It becomes the writer's task to reinvigorate the departed soldiers by speaking for them and to pay homage to the fallen comrades by documenting the conditions of battle both for inexperienced civilian readers back home as well as for posterity.

But the writer also engages in another enterprise, that of empowering the living combatant by furnishing him a much-needed voice. While it has become commonplace to remark upon the photographic tendency of Great War literature and to view its ultimate audience as the uninformed noncombatants who need to be "educated,"(3) readers have been less aware of the notion that many soldier-writers might have employed language for themselves, not only to assist in reasserting their individuality but more importantly as a device to help them subvert the two powerful frameworks - the army and the war itself - that engulfed them. Since assertion of individual identity hinders the army's efforts to fold a pliant young recruit into the war-machine - for, as Kerr points out, its discourse "belongs among those speech genres classed by Bakhtin as the least conducive to reflecting individuality in language" (159-60) - utilizing nonmilitary speech, specifically for that task, became a risky and even traitorous proposition. If one doubts the army's nervousness over free expression by its soldiers, he or she need only recall the government's massive propaganda campaign or the military's blanket censorship of most forms of written expression, realized most thoroughly in the Field Service Post Card.(4)

This essay, then, proposes a psycholexicological model that ties the way language emerges in consciously literary treatments(5) of the war to both the taxing psychological atmosphere of the fighting and to the soldier-writer's concomitant need to ground the self, gain control, and finally assert power, however temporary and tenuous that power might be. In fact, somewhat like oppressed groups that use linguistic strategies such as slang and other forms of coded language to create a self-contained community, protect themselves from the oppressor, and finally subvert that authority, many British writers of the Great War embraced what I call a "rhetoric of combat" that allowed them to express their frustrations, doubts, and fears covertly without overtly challenging the supremacy of the military system and risking the dire consequences that usually followed such a challenge. …

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