June 19, 2014

"Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it"

Bookworm in her post America’s cultural journey from actual hero Audie Murphy to DemProg “hero” Bowie Bergdahl quotes extensively from  George MacDonald Fraser’s delightful Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II which describes an infantry man’s experiences in Burma during WWII. 

What most interested me was his description of the impact culture had on the way people grieve. 

Fraser’s description of his first battle and its aftermath is especially interesting. He describes how, within a minute or two, half his unit was wounded, and two men were dead. Despite these events, Fraser writes that he was able to function because he’d shifted into a battle mode that allowed him to observe what was happening, to make decisions, and to act, all without emotion overwhelming him.

After the battle ended, Fraser writes that the men in the unit, both wounded and whole, were neither exultant nor despairing. They were just tired. They didn’t obsess about the dead but, instead, engaged in a respectful ritual that saw each of them exchange a piece of his military, non-personal kit for that of the dead man’s military, non-personal kit. There was no greed involved, nor was the experience maudlin. Instead, the ritual was an almost businesslike way to remember the dead by keeping something of his nearby.
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An outsider might have thought, mistakenly, that the section was unmoved by the deaths of Gale and Little. There was no outward show of sorrow, no reminiscences or eulogies, no Hollywood heart-searchings or phony philosophy…..t was not callousness or indifference or lack of feeling for two comrades who had been alive that morning and were now names for the war memorial; it was just that there was nothing to be said.

It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow.

The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense.

But that was half a century ago. Things are different now, when the media seem to feel they have a duty to dwell on emotion, the more harrowing the better, and to encourage its indulgence. The cameras close on stricken families at funerals, interviewers probe relentlessly to uncover grief, pain, fear, and shock, know no reticence or even decency in their eagerness to make the viewers’ flesh creep, and wallow in the sentimental cliché (victims are always “innocent”, relatives must be “loved ones”). And the obscene intrusion is justified as “caring” and “compassionate” when it is the exact opposite.
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The damage that fashionable attitudes, reflected (and created) by television, have done to the public spirit, is incalculable. It has been weakened to the point where it is taken for granted that anyone who has suffered loss and hardship must be in need of “counselling”; that soldiers will suffer from “post-battle traumatic stress” and need psychiatric help. One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargonmumbling “counsellors”, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing. Certainly, a small minority needed help; war can leave terrible mental scars — but the numbers will increase, and the scars enlarge, in proportion to society’s insistence on raising spectres which would be better left alone. Tell people they should feel something, and they’ll not only feel it, they’ll regard themselves as entitled and obliged to feel it.
Posted by Jill Fallon at June 19, 2014 7:11 PM | Permalink