Memoirs of an Infantry Officer - Siegfried Sassoon 3.5 – 4 stars

Reading works like this makes me wonder how the human race has survived the hugely numerous and multifarious wars, battles, skirmishes, and ‘military actions’ that it has undertaken during the relatively brief span of its existence when they constantly bring home just how truly limited the insight and abilities of the military elite to see beyond their own arses seems to be. The glamourization of war in both historical and current popular culture makes the ability of a highly trained force of soldiers under the direction of charismatic leaders to meet their objectives appear a no-brainer. When one really stops to ponder the sheer logistics involved in the organization and deployment of anything approaching the size of an army, adds to that the conflicting aims of the various political entities or opinions involved (on only one side of the conflict), and then layers in the seemingly absurd pride of place given to the egos and various personal manias of the leaders making all ‘strategic’ decisions one soon realizes that we ought to have wiped ourselves off of the globe a long time ago. The sheer pigheaded inertia of the military mindset which allows it to calmly accept the fact of attrition as a valid method to achieve success and thus throwing away thousands, if not millions, of human lives in the name of achieving ill-defined (or even explicitly well-defined) political and military objectives rather than re-think the current political position or military tactics is terrifying. Simply confining oneself to such modern military actions as the Civil War, WWI, WWII and the Vietnam War and being constantly told of the insanely costly (in human lives) fuck ups that various battles or engagements were simply due to the wrong people being given the power to lead and make tactical or strategic decisions for the wrong reasons blows my mind.

Thus we come to the continuing story of George Sherston (the semi-autobiographical stand-in for author Siegfried Sassoon) who, by this second volume of his memoirs, has graduated from a somewhat feckless and leisure loving dilettante of the upper middle class to become an old hand as a low-level officer in the Machine that is the allied force of WWI. This is not to say that Sherston feels in any way qualified for his job, for the most part he is simply trying to muddle along and look like he knows what he’s about without making any errors that are too egregious or obvious. This eminently unqualified (except by his place on the social ladder) individual assigned to lead his men in battle readily admits at one point that “I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business.” To me that statement alone stands as an utterly terrifying testimony to the situation for many of the men, both leaders and led, in the Great War. As the story opens Sherston at least has faith in both the alleged aims of the powers that are leading the war from his side as well and their ability to do so. This conviction begins to waver, however, as he sees friends and comrades drop like flies to gain (if anything) little more than a few feet of muddy ground in increasingly botched actions along the trenches of the western front. Compounding this are the sheer monotony, confusion, and uncertainty that characterize the quiet moments filling up the lengthy gaps between the terrifying chances to lose one’s life. Sherston recalls a moment typical of his front line experience:
But I can remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War. Who made the War? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind.

“Such sights must be taken for granted…” reflects Sherston, but the disturbance they cause deeper in his psyche can ultimately not be ignored.

Sherston is one of the lucky ones. Through a series of illnesses brought on by the poor conditions in the trenches and a few ‘lucky’ wounds he is able to leave the front at key times and return to ‘Merry Olde England’ when he would otherwise have likely met the bullet with his name on it as did so many of the friends and comrades he names in these memoirs. It is during these quiet moments that he is able to contrast the conditions of his strange new life with those being lived by the civilians at home. It becomes clearer & clearer to him that these civilians in England are no longer a part of Sherston’s world whether they are the well-meaning, but vacuous, supporters of the British war effort against “the Boche”, or war profiteers and ‘conscientious objectors’ living in relative comfort and ease while the cream of young men from his generation are being obliterated at a staggering rate. Indeed everyone around him (even, or perhaps especially, the commanders on the home front) seems to completely misunderstand the position of the soldiers in the trenches and Sherston is slowly forced to re-evaluate his position on the war. As with the participants in many other wars Sherston slowly becomes disassociated from his own countrymen. He is no longer a member of the society for which he is fighting, he is instead a member of
…the survivors; few among us would ever tell the truth to our friends and relations in England. We were carrying something in our heads which belonged to us alone, and to those we had left behind us in the battle.
He is a member of a much smaller community formed by violence and loss and he begins to realize that he has more in common with the enemy, a likely group of ‘poor blighters’ more akin to him and his friends, than any of these ‘allies’ at home.

Slowly Sherston comes to hate the war and all of the meaningless death and destruction it brings. As he digs further and asks more questions he comes to believe that those in charge, the people for whom he and his friends are putting their lives on the line, are pursuing not a noble war of defense in the face of tyranny, but a war of aggrandizement and acquisition. Is this worth dying for? Is it worth killing for? Sherston knows the answer to these questions that his own heart gives, though he feels keenly the futility and alienation of his position should it ever become known. Still, he begins to tentatively travel in some of the anti-war circles of his day and formulates an idea that he must do something, anything, even if it is simply to state his opposition to the horrors continuing unless the Allies’ objectives become clear and open knowledge. He is not really a member of the anti-war intelligentsia though, and even his desire to act in some way outside of the military sphere is one fraught with internal conflict. He is still simply a soldier thinking of the needs of other soldiers and while it may be true that in the eyes of the anti-war protestors
…there was no credit attached to the fact of having been at the front… for me it had been a supremely important experience. I am obliged to admit that if these anti-war enthusiasts hadn't happened to be likeable I might have secretly despised them.

In the end this second volume of his memoirs closes in media res as Sherston sends in his statement of protest (just as Sassoon himself did in reality) and awaits imprisonment as a criminal or confinement as a mentally ill invalid with the prospect that no good at all may come of his apparently futile gesture.