I'm doing a lot of thinking about war at the moment. That's because I've been watching this:
and reading this:
The film is My Boy Jack, the story of Rudyard Kipling's son Jack who was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1915. It was the day after his eighteenth birthday, and he was the lieutenant of a platoon. His father had pulled major strings to get him into the army despite the boy's severe myopia. It's a haunting and beautiful film (David Haig, who stars as Rudyard, wrote the original play and also the screenplay, and Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, turns in a solid performance as Jack). Perhaps what is most haunting about it is not the understandable guilt that Kipling felt for what he had done, but the realization that he did what he did out of a desire to see his son a "success." He truly thought that fighting in the war would provide his son a noble calling and a chance at glory. How empty such sentiments seemed to him, and to Jack's mother and sister, after Jack is killed.
No war, even a "just" one, ever really seems glorious, but the more I read of World War I, the more horrified I am by its brutality and its meaninglessness. One of the most painful moments in the film comes after the family receives the initial telegram that Jack is missing and presumed wounded. That leaves them just enough hope to cling to, and Jack's mother, reacting in a way I think many mothers would, becomes obsessed with trying to find any word she can of her son's possible whereabouts. Since the Kiplings were well-off and well-known, they had connections, and the mother convinces the head of the Red Cross to send her thousands of pictures of wounded men who have passed through their care. She and Rudyard sit up late into the night, plowing through the pile of photos. It's heartbreaking, both for the mother's dogged determination in the face of such awful odds, and because you realize (though it's never said aloud, and never needs to be) that every picture they look at and lay aside is yet someone else's son.
The book is the 2006 Pulitzer prize winning novel March, by Australian author Geraldine Brooks. I wasn't sure what I was expecting from this book, but it was a powerful and disturbing read. Brooks is both an excellent historical novelist and a beautiful wordsmith. March tells the imagined story of what might have happened to Mr. March, the father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, during his year-long chaplaincy with the Union Army in the Civil War. Given how important Alcott and Little Women were to me in my childhood, I found this "creative riff" a fascinating one, but truly didn't know what to expect. It's very much an adult novel, despite taking flight from a classic novel for young people. Brooks draws on the history of the actual Alcott family in Concord (on whom Alcott based her fictional March family) and on the history of slavery and abolition. It's a sad and sobering novel, and while it is not at all how I would have imagined Mr. March's story, I nonetheless found myself moving fully into the world Brooks imagined and believing that this could easily have been his story. I was also amazed at the seamless way she was able to weave in moments from Little Women itself (through Mr. March's letters and flashbacks mostly) and I especially loved one scene she gave to the desperately shy Beth, connected to the family's imagined involvement in the Underground Railroad.
The two books converge more toward the end of Brooks' narrative, when Marmee goes to Washington to nurse her ill husband. We hear only the tiniest of snippets about this in Little Women, of course, because the real action of that novel is taking place in the lives of the girls back home. Here we follow Marmee into the squallor of 1861 Georgetown and the mess of a hospital for convalescing soldiers, and we enter into Mr. March's complete and utter despair over what he has seen in the war (and either been unable to stop, or actually feels culpable because his own moral choices are bound up in the suffering of others).
As Marmee looks at her husband, so pale and ill and so changed, she reflects, in spite of her understanding of the importance of the cause for which the Union was fighting, with real bitterness on when he chose to go to war -- at the unheard of age of 40.
When I saw him stand up on that tree stump in the cattle ground, surrounded by the avid faces of the young, I knew that as he spoke to them, he was thinking that it was unfair to lay the burden so fully on that innocent generation. I could see the look of love for those boys in his eyes, and I saw also that the moment was carrying him away. I raised my arms to him, imploring him not to say the words that I knew were forming in his mind. He looked me full in the face, he saw my tears, and he ignored them and did as he pleased. And then I in my turn had to pretend to be pleased by my hero of a husband. When he stepped down, and came to me, I could not speak. I took his hand and dug my nails into the flesh of it, wanting to hurt him for the hurt he was inflicting upon me.
I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.
The waste of it. I sit here, and look at him, and it is as if a hundred women sit beside me: the revolutionary farm wife, the English peasant woman, the Spartan mother -- "Come back with your shield or on it," she cried, because that was what she was expected to cry. And then she leaned across the broken body of her son and the words turned to dust in her throat.
Thank God that I have daughters only, and no sons. How would I bear it if Meg were now a soldier at sixteen, and the prospect of this war stretching into years, so that Jo, too, might come of age while it yet rages?...
What is left of him? What remains, now that war and disease have worked their dreadful alchemy? I could see the change in him, even before I heard the mutterings of his delirium. When they directed me to him this afternoon, I thought they had sent me to the wrong beside. Truly, I did not know him."