- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

Anyone who has read Vera Brittain’s moving memoir, “Testament of Youth” — or seen the Masterpiece Theatre dramatization that appeared two decades ago — will understand the roots of her deeply-held pacifist convictions. Miss Brittain’s account of her own experiences as a battlefield nurse and of losing her only brother, her fiance, and their two best friends in the slaughterhouse of World War I combat is one of the most affecting pieces of literature to emerge from a conflict which, whatever its other demerits, had the sad virtue of being the crucible of a huge body of fine writing about the travails of war.

By the time her memoir appeared some 15 years after the cessation of hostilities, Miss Brittain was a fervent pacifist and a strong advocate of The League of Nations as a method of preventing the warfare which she personally knew to be so costly. That the League’s mission was supposed to be collective security backed up, if necessary, by military force, does not appear to have weakened Miss Brittain’s attachment to that first attempt at a global organization of countries. Clearly, her pacifism was not absolute; and her allegiance to pacifist ideals was to be severely tested in the face of the ascendancy of totalitarian dictatorships as the world lurched towards another world war.

Which brings us to “England’s Hour,” an anguished little book actually written during the first months of the Blitz on London in 1940 and originally published the following year. Ostensibly an account of the first year or so of World War II as experienced by Miss Brittain and her family, it is also an agonizing and agonized account of her inner struggle to reconcile pacifism, anti-Fascism, love of liberty, and patriotism.

Devastated by the coming of war so soon again in her lifetime and horrified at the prospect of her two pre-teenage children having to cope with the losses attendant on modern warfare, she is at first overwhelmed. But when her daughter assures her “Don’t cry… It’ll be all right in the end, really it will!” she soon pulls herself together and “struggle out of the black engulfing waters… .This is no time for tears. It is a time for resolution, and the rededication of ourselves to those ideal ends whose fulfillment we shall now never see.”

As the Blitz itself approaches, Miss Brittain makes the painful decision to send her children unaccompanied by any family member through U-boat infested Atlantic waters to safety with friends in St. Paul, Minn. With her husband fulfilling lecturing commitments abroad, Miss Brittain sets about living — and recording — life at the vortex of London’s Armageddon.

As the book progresses, she moves from admiring the civilized fashion in which her beleaguered country is still able to deal with conscientious objectors to admiring how valiantly all sections of society cope with the depredations of war. And in this progression, “England’s Hour” reverses the inner journey of Brittain a generation before.

“Testament of Youth” had opened with a portrait of the young Vera as an almost jingoistic supporter of World War I and, although the terrible losses she sustained disillusioned her about the nature of the conflict, they could not rob her of a still vibrant patriotism. Even late in that war, while she was at the front nursing wounded British and enemy soldiers, she could not disguise her pride at the defiance and resolution shown by her country in the face of the huge German offensive of March 1918, which so nearly succeeded in overrunning its forces on the Western Front.

She quotes with great emotion and obvious admiration the famous Special Order of the Day issued by Gen. Douglas Haig which ended with the statement: “There is no course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.”

Even more remarkable than the patriotism which the bereft Miss Brittain could still feel as late as April 1918 are the words of the avowed pacifist of “Testament of Youth”:

“Although, since that date, the publication of official ‘revelations’ has stripped from the Haig myth much of its glory, I have never been able to visualise Lord Haig as the colossal blunderer, the self-deceived optimist, of the Somme massacre in 1916. I can think of him only as the author of that Special Order, for after I had read it I knew that I should go on, whether I could or not. There was a braver spirit in the hospital that afternoon, and though we only referred briefly and brusquely to Haig’s message, each of us had made up her mind that, though enemy airmen blew up our huts and the Germans advanced upon us from Abbeville, so long as wounded men remained in Etaples, there would be ‘no retirement.’”

And similarly, confronted with the prospect of a Nazi invasion of Britain in 1940, the writer is filled with admiration for the efforts to resist such an unpalatable prospect. Although she is in theory committed to the pacifist line that even the horrors of a brutal genocidal Nazi occupation are preferable to war itself, the Brittain who narrates “England’s Hour” seems to embody the indomitable spirit of determination to resist the destruction of a society that for all its faults — and she is eloquent about its social and economic inequality — she deeply admires and indeed loves.

“To-day the front line is part of our daily lives; its dugouts and first-aid posts are in every street; its trenches and encampments occupy sections of every city park and every village green. Not only regiments, air squadrons, and the crews of ships are holding that line, but the whole nation, its families, households, and workers, whether they like it or not. Neither their talents nor their preferences have been consulted by the fate which is upon them.

“Few of them do like it, but most are prepared to endure it. Even the minority which regards war as a crime and opposed this one to the moment of its outbreak, has no desire to run away. Its members prefer to remain and share their country’s fortunes; to assume the responsibility for these all the more when for a time they happen to be adverse; to perform the outstanding duties of detached thought and humanitarian co-operation; to serve, not war, but their fellow men.”

Thus, we have here a patriotic Englishwoman confronting the threat to her country by a brutal regime not at all susceptible to the blandishments of the pacifism which in theory is supposed, if sufficiently powerful on the part of peace lovers, to win over even the hardest of hearts. Her right as a citizen to liberty and the freedom to dissent are as much under attack by this enemy as are the buildings of the great city she inhabits. She does not yet know (as she will discover at the end of the war) that she is actually on a list of people to be eliminated after Britain is occupied, but she can have been under no illusion as to how she would fare under Nazi occupation.

She wrings her hands over the failure to make pacifism dominant in the years leading up the war, but cannot bring herself to confront the fact that this ideology may have made war more likely, not less. And she does not see the contradiction between advocating such idealistic persuasion while at the same time fervently deploring the failure of her government to prevent the rise of Hitler by a more robust application of political and thus also military power. Avowedly pacifist though she remains, it seems inherent in almost everything she writes in “England’s Hour” that if there could be a “just war,” this must be it.

Sterling character, unshakable religious faith, moral courage, vibrant intelligence, and a capacity for usefully discriminating among shades of grey are the hallmarks of Brittain’s formidable legacy. Later in World War II, she would turn her energies to protesting the policy of firebombing enemy cities with the deliberate intent of inflicting mass civilian casualties, earning her the ire of “pure” pacifists who accused her of legitimizing other, more normative forms of warfare.

Faced as we now are with protesters mindlessly chanting mantras for peace at apparently any cost, one can only wish for a latter-day Brittain to arise and focus perhaps on particular aspects of today’s warfare that we might better be without. Just as her shade might justly feel pride in seeing targeted bombing which minimizes collateral damage to civilians in a manner beyond her wildest dreams, so perhaps future generations might rejoice in the absence of depleted uranium shells and cluster bombs. Oh for a pacifist today as intelligent, discriminating and patriotic as Vera Brittain.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in California.

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