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   Chapter 9 No.9

Life in a Tank By Richard Haigh Characters: 14889

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


It has often been observed that if this war is to end war for all time, and if all the sacrifices and misery and suffering will help to prevent any recurrence of them, then it is well worth while.

In these days of immediate demands and quick results, this question is too vague and too far-reaching to bring instant consolation. Apart from that, too, it cannot decide whether any war, however great, can ever abolish the natural and primitive fighting instinct in man.

The source from which we must draw the justification for our optimism lies much nearer to hand. We must regard the effect that warring life has already produced upon each individual member of the nations who are and who are not engaged in it.

At the very heart of it is the effect on the man who is actually fighting. Take the case of him who before the war was either working in a factory, who was a clerk in a business house, or who was nothing at all beyond the veriest loafer and bar-lounger. To begin with, he was perhaps purely selfish. The foundation of his normal life was self-protection. Whether worthless or worthy, whether hating or respecting his superiors, the private gain and comfort for himself and his was the object of his existence. He becomes a soldier, and that act alone is a conversion. His wife and children are cared for, it is true; but he himself, for a shilling a day, sells to his country his life, his health, his pleasures, and his hopes for the future. To make good measure he throws in cheerfulness, devotion, philosophy, humour, and an unfailing kindness. One man, for instance, sells up three grocery businesses in the heart of Lancashire, an ambition which it has taken him ten years to accomplish. Without a trace of bitterness he divorces himself from the routine of a lifetime, and goes out to France to begin life again at the very bottom of a new ladder. He who for years had many men under him is now under all, and receives, unquestioningly, orders which in a different sphere he had been accustomed to give. Apart from the mere letter of obedience and discipline he gains a spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice, which turns the bare military instrument into a divine virtue. He may, for instance, take up the duties of an officer's servant. Immediately he throws himself whole-heartedly into a new form of selfless generosity, which leads him to a thousand ways of care and forethought, that even the tenderest woman could hardly conceive. The man who receives this unwavering devotion can only accept it with the knowledge that no one can deserve it, and that it is greater gain to him who gives than to him who takes.

What life of peace is there that produces this god-like fibre in the plainest of men? Why, indeed, is it produced in the life of war? It is because in war sordidness and petty worries are eliminated; because the one great and ever-present fear, the fear of death, reduces all other considerations to their proper values. The actual fear of death is always present, but this fear itself cannot be sordid when men can meet it of their own free will and with the most total absence of cringing or of cowardice.

In commercial rivalry a man will sacrifice the friend of years to gain a given sum, which will insure him increased material comforts. In war a man will deliberately sacrifice the life for which he wanted those comforts, to save perhaps a couple of men who have no claim on him whatsoever. He who before feared any household calamity now throws himself upon a live bomb, which, even though he might escape himself, will without his action kill other men who are near it. This deed loses none of its value because of the general belief among soldiers that life is cheap. Other men's lives are cheap. One's own life is always very dear.

One of the most precious results has been the resurrection of the quality of admiration. The man who before the war said, "Why is he my master?" is now only too glad to accept a leader who is a leader indeed. He has learned that as his leader cannot do without him, so he cannot do without his leader, and although each is of equal importance in the scheme of affairs, their positions in the scheme are different. He has learned that there is a higher equality than the equality of class: it is the equality of spirit.

This same feeling is reflected, more especially among the leaders of the men, in the complete disappearance of snobbishness. No such artificial imposition can survive in a life where inherent value automatically finds its level; where a disguise which in peace-time passed as superiority, now disintegrates when in contact with this life of essentials. For war is, above all, a reduction to essentials. It is the touchstone which proves the qualities of our youth's training. All those pleasures that formed the gamut of a young man's life either fall away completely or find their proper place. Sport, games, the open-air life, have taught him that high cheerfulness, through failure or success, which makes endurance possible. But the complicated, artificial pleasures of ordinary times have receded into a dim, unspoken background. The wholesomeness of the existence that he now leads has taught him to delight in the most simple and natural of things. This throwing aside of the perversions and fripperies of an over-civilization has forced him to regard them with a disgust that can never allow him to be tempted again by their inducements of delight and dissipation. The natural, healthy desires which a man is sometimes inclined to indulge in are no longer veiled under a mask of hypocrisy. They are treated in a perfectly outspoken fashion as the necessary accompaniments to a hard, open-air life, where a man's vitality is at its best. In consequence of this, and as the result of the deepening of man's character which war inevitably produces, the sense of adventure and mystery which accompanied the fulfilment of these desires has disappeared, and with it to a great extent the desires themselves have assumed a far less importance.

In peace, and especially in war, the young man's creed is casualness. Not the casualness of carelessness, but that which comes from the knowledge that up to each given point he has done his best. It is this fundamental peace of mind which comes to a soldier that forms the beauty of his life. The order received must be obeyed in its exact degree, neither more nor less; and the responsibility, though great, is clearly defined. Each man must use his individual intelligence within the scope of the part assigned to him. The responsibility differs in kind, but not in degree, and the last link of the chain is as important as the first. There can be no shirking or shifting, and, knowing this, each task is finished, rounded out, and put away. One might think that this made thought mechanical: but it is mechanical only in so far as each man's intelligence is concentrated on his own particular duty, and each part working in perfect order contributes to the unison through which the whole machine develops its power. Thus the military life induces in men a clearer and more accurate habit of thought, and teaches each one to do his work well and above all to do his own work only.

From this very simplicity of life, which brings out a calmness of mind and that equable temperament that minor worries can no longer shake, springs the mental leisure

which gives time for other and unaccustomed ideas. Men who wittingly, time and again, have faced but escaped death, will inevitably begin to think what death may mean. As the first lessons of obedience teach each man that he needs a leader to pass through a certain crisis, so the crisis of death, where man must pass alone, demands a still higher Leader. With the admission that no man is self-sufficient, that sin of pride, which is the strongest barrier between a man and his God, falls away. He is forced, if only in self-defence, to recognize that faith in some all-sufficient Power is the only thing that will carry him through. If he could cut away the thousand sins of thought, man would automatically find himself at faith. It is the central but often hidden point of our intelligence; and although there are a hundred roads that lead to it, they may be completely blocked. The clean flame of the disciplined life burns away the rubbish that chokes these roads, and faith becomes a nearer and more constant thing.

The sadness of war lies in the loss of actual personalities, but it is only by means of these losses that this surrender can be attained.

It must not be thought that faith comes overnight as a free gift. It is a long and slow process of many difficult steps. There may be first the actual literal crumbling, unknown in peace-time, of one's solid surroundings, to be repeated perhaps again and again until the old habit of reliance upon them is uprooted. Then comes the realization that this life at the front has but two possible endings. The first is to be so disabled that a man's fighting days are over. The other is death. Instant death rather than a slow death from wounds. Every man hopes for a wound which will send him home to England. That, however, is only a respite, as his return to France follows upon his convalescence. The other most important step is the loss of one's friends. It is not the fact of actually seeing them killed, for in the chaos and tumult of a battle the mind hardly registers such impressions. One's only feeling is the purely primitive one of relief, that it is another and not one's self. It is only afterwards, when the excitement is over, and a man realizes that again there is a space of life, for him, but not for his friend, that the loneliness and the loss are felt. He then says to himself, "Why am I spared when many better men have gone?" At first resentment swallows up all other emotions. In time, when this bitterness begins to pass, the belief that somehow this loss is of some avail, carries him a little farther on the road to faith. This all comes to the man who before the war believed that the world was made for his pleasure, and who treated life from that standpoint. All that he wanted he took without asking. Now, all that he has he gives without being asked.

Woman, too, gives more than herself. She gives her men, her peace of mind and all that makes her life worth living. The man after all may have little hope, but while he is alive he has the daily pleasures of health, vitality, excitement, and a thousand interests. A woman has but a choice of sorrows: the sorrow of unbearable suspense or the acceptance of the end.

Yet it needed this war to show again to women what they could best do in life: to love their men, bear their children, care for the sick and suffering, and learn to endure. It has taught them also to accept from man what he is able or willing to give, and to admit a higher claim than their own. They have been forced to put aside the demands and exactions which they felt before were their right, and to accept loneliness and loss without murmur or question.

A woman who loses her son loses the supreme reason of her existence; and yet the day after the news has come, she goes back to her work for the sons of other women. If she has more sons to give she gives them, and faces again the eternal suspense that she has lived through before. The younger women, who in times of peace would have looked forward to an advantageous and comfortable marriage, will now marry men whom they may never see again after the ten days' honeymoon is over, and will unselfishly face the very real possibility of widowhood and lonely motherhood. They have had to learn the old lesson that work for others is the only cure for sorrow, and they have learned too that it is the only cure for all those petty worries and boredoms which assailed them in times of peace. If they have learned this, then again one may say that war is worth while.

What effect has the war had upon those countries who in the beginning were not engaged in it? The United States, for instance, has for three years been an onlooker. The people of that country have had every opportunity to view, in their proper perspectives, the feelings and changes brought about among the men and women of the combatant countries. At first, the enormous casualties, the sufferings and the sorrow, led them to believe that nothing was worth the price they would have to pay, were they to enter into the lists. For in the beginning, before that wonderful philosophy of spirit and cheerfulness of outlook arose, and before the far-reaching effects of the sacrifice of loved ones could be perceived, there seemed to be little reason or right for such a train of desolation. They were perfectly justified, too, in thinking this, when insufficient time had elapsed to enable them to judge of the immense, sweeping, beneficial effects that this struggle has produced in the moral fibre and stamina of the nations engaged.

It must be remembered that the horrors of the imagination are far worse than the realities. The men who fight and the women who tend their wounds suffer mentally far less than those who paint the pictures in their minds, from data which so very often are grossly exaggerated. One must realize that the hardships of war are merely transient. Men suffer untold discomforts, and yet, when these sufferings are over and mind and body are at ease for a while, they are completely forgotten. The only mark they leave is the disinclination to undergo them again. But on those who do not realize them in their actuality, they cause a far more terrifying effect.

Now, others, as well, have discovered that war's advantages outweigh so much its losses. They who with their own eyes had seen the wonderful fortitude with which men stand pain, and the amazing submission with which women bear sorrow, returned full of zeal and enthusiasm, to carry the torch of this uplifting flame to their own countrymen.

Others will realize, too, that although one may lose one's best, yet one's worst is made better. The women will find that the characters of their men will become softened. The clear-cut essentials of a life of war must make the mind of man direct. It may be brutal in its simplicity, but it is clear and frank. Yet to counteract this, the continual sight of suffering bravely borne, the deep love and humility that the devotion of others unconsciously produces, bring about this charity of feeling, this desire to forgive and this moderation in criticism, which is so marked in those who have passed through the strenuous, searing realities of war. Since the thirty pieces of silver, no minted coin in the world has bought so much as has the King's shilling of to-day.


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The Riverside Press



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