Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Self Separated from Violente: Spectacle, Material Appropriation, and Voices of Resistance on the Western Front, 1914-18

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Self Separated from Violente: Spectacle, Material Appropriation, and Voices of Resistance on the Western Front, 1914-18

Article excerpt

If popular media is any indication, it would appear that the contemporary image of the First World War is one of immense tragedy, futility, and appalling even inconceivable--violence. This prevailing meta-narrative was most recently presented to extremely large audiences of Canadian filmgoers in Paul Gross's 2008 First World War epic, Passchendaele. Additionally, the National Arts Centre's 2010-11 English Theatre line-up features Vem Thiessen's 2007 drama, Vimy, a play centred on maimed and shell-shocked participants in one of Canada's most renowned battles. In each of these depictions of war, as in many others on the popular front, the engagement with the violence of combat appears to produce the same outcome: victimhood and trauma. (1) By now, these narratives are wholly familiar, and are often the product of the usual set of inspirational writings (at least in the Anglo tradition): Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and the war poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Eric J. Leed, Modris Eksteins, and Samuel Hynes have ali in their own ways echoed themes of loss, powerlessness, victimhood, and any number of other tropes of the anti-war writers. (2) Yet as contemporary historians have repeatedly shown over the past decade, such descriptions of the First World War are highly limited and at best are only a partial reflection of the war experience. (3) What these recent histories reveal is a strong presentist agenda in the popular interpretation of a war long removed from our personal experience. These revisions, moreover, tend to focus primarily on the post-war setting, exploring the construction and flowering of these cultural myths and their subsequent societal proliferation. If one returns to the trenches themselves, one encounters a sentiment not always of victimhood, but sometimes of empowerment and control. This article explores a set of related cultural practices in which such transformational expressions were manifested.

It is important to remark initially that the narrative of victimhood is explicitly related to violence, and that violence must figure centrally in any discussion that attempts to move beyond viewing soldiers as victims of war. As Stephane AudoinRouzeau has argued, "to refuse to look at ... the violence of combat" is in fact "a refusal to grasp the central phenomenon of war. (4) Audoin-Rouzeau and fellow French colleague Annette Becker, in 14-18: Understanding the Great War, employ this "central phenomenon of war" to address negotiations between the French state and its soldiers, the society's acceptance of violence (or lack thereof), and the legacy of violence in post-war France. (5) Other historical works have, of course, previously examined the negotiation of violence by soldiers on the Western Front, such as Tony Ashworth's landmark sociological study of the "Live and Let Live System" between foes in their respective trenches, and also Leonard V. Smith's study of the 1917 French mutinies, which looks at power negotiations between the men who would conceivably die in combat and those ordering them to fight. (6) Still, these approaches of Smith, Ashworth, and others like them tend to be macroscopic in their approaches, exploring the masses of soldiers in a regiment as a single political body, for instance. The more individualized, subjective responses to violence in war--and particularly those acts of private or public resistance to violence--have heretofore been mostly unanalyzed.

The argument being made here is not that historians and other academics have shown a lack of interest in this latter concern, but rather ir is a criticism of their respective analytical frameworks. Indeed, a number of current scholars are engaged with what is generally termed "soldiers' culture," which results from the incorporation of cultural studies into the study of war and the military. While the term "soldiers' culture" is itself problematic for its assumptions about war participants' martial identities and militaristic orientation, that discussion must be reserved for another time. …

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