"Soldiers Don't Go Mad": A stunning account of poetry, paradox and the horrors of war

The two greatest poets of World War I despised the bloody, pointless conflict — yet fought bravely. But why?

By Norman Solomon

Contributing Writer

Published July 9, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

First World War: soldiers of the English infantry in France, running out of their trenches at the signal to assault. Somme, France 1916. (Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)
First World War: soldiers of the English infantry in France, running out of their trenches at the signal to assault. Somme, France 1916. (Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

Midway through his stunning new book "Soldiers Don't Go Mad," author Charles Glass quotes a declaration from the Times of London on Aug. 18, 1917: "The war has brought new opportunities of heroism to us all. Every Briton in the full strength of manhood is a soldier, and the business of fighting is his duty."

At that point, World War I had been going on for three years, and it was to continue for another 15 months. The war killed nearly 10 million soldiers and wounded many others, while destroying the lives of uncounted civilians. All the talk about "heroism" and "duty" greased the wheels for slaughter.

Such words have an unnerving echo in our era. They sound familiar, just as the massive profiteering from the "Great War" has its counterparts in the endlessly bullish marketplace for Pentagon contracts.

By telling "A Story of Brotherhood, Poetry, and Mental Illness During the First World War" — the subtitle of his book — Glass (a veteran journalist who has covered wars in the Middle East and the Balkans) offers an opportunity for us to compare then and now. Despite the differences between the eras, the continuities are deeply significant, starting with the reality that wars are still war and humans are still human. And whether we use the term "shell shock" or PTSD, the human consequences for those who fight, even when they survive, are evaded by top officials who order young people to kill.

Two years after war broke out in 1914, the British government set up an innovative mental institution (for "officers only") in Scotland. Aiming to help officers who'd been traumatized in battle, Craiglockhart War Hospital treated 1,801 of them during a 30-month period. The treatment was advanced and enlightened. Yet as Glass writes, "many of the 'cured' officers from Craiglockhart suffered trauma for the rest of their lives."

The book focuses largely on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, probably the two most renowned poets of that dreadful war, who met at Craiglockhart and developed a close bond. Sassoon, a half-dozen years older than Owen, went public with his opposition to the war after experiencing its horrors in battlefields of France — yet later, after some recuperation, he chose to go back into combat. Owen, more reluctantly, also returned to the bloody grind of trench warfare. 

Owen wrote his poems during lulls in combat. He was killed in action just days before the November 1918 armistice, at age 26.

Owen's most famous poem ends with a Latin phrase (taken from the Roman poet Horace) that translates as "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." It concludes with a stanza describing the death of a fellow soldier following a poison gas attack: 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Yet both Owen and Sassoon were fierce and daring fighters who led men into battle, even as remorse hovered. Owen's 1918 poem "Strange Meeting," which imagines a meeting in the afterlife with an enemy soldier he had killed, not only "revealed a poetic genius," Glass observes, "but also guilt at killing even as he engaged it." Owen, in command of a platoon, was determined to prove himself the epitome of courage rather than cowardice — an excellent commander and killer — yet his poetry depicted the results as hellish rather than glorious.

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Such paradoxes, with fervent warriors who don't necessarily believe in the war they're fighting, give us a lot to think about in our own time. The disconnect between conformity and conscience may not be easy to comprehend.

As the war neared its end, Sassoon asked himself a hard question: "How could I begin my life all over again, when I had no conviction about anything except that the War was a dirty trick which has been played on me and my generation?" As Glass writes, "The perpetual conflict between the warrior and the pacifist raged within him."

Wilfred Owen, in command of a platoon, was determined to prove himself the epitome of courage rather than cowardice — an excellent commander and killer — yet his poetry depicted the results as hellish rather than glorious.

It might seem odd that Owen and Sassoon, capable of writing such powerful and haunting poetry about the barbarism of war, would willingly return to — and strive to excel at — warfare that was steadily massacring people on a huge scale. But the solidarity of brotherhood among troops and the pressures of nationalism made few consider opting out of a deranged war. It didn't help that, as Glass notes, 300 "shell-shocked men" were executed by the British government "for desertion or cowardice."

The normalized baseline in wartime British culture, from the top of the command structure on down, was basically insane. So, naturally enough, when Sassoon issued a public protest against the war, the government attributed his protest to insanity.

Technological "advances" had made it possible for governments to turn World War I into a merciless charnel house on a vast scale. (The extent of the carnage was unprecedented, killing several times as many combatants as all the Napoleonic wars combined over a period of a dozen years.) Up to and including the two world wars of the last century, the majority of those killed in war were soldiers. In the 21st century, most of war's victims have been civilians.

Although a great deal has changed, some basic truths are still in place. Ever since the invasions of Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003, many people serving in the U.S. military have seen the evils of the warfare marketed under the "war on terror" slogan. But for the most part conformity has enforced silence in the service of the war machine. Government leaders remain masters of deception, while enormous numbers of human beings suffer the consequences.

As a journalist, Charles Glass has covered wars on the ground for several decades. His insights are subtle yet palpable in "Soldiers Don't Go Mad," evoking the power of war to haunt, traumatize and destroy long after the last bombs explode. Fittingly, his book's title comes from a 1917 poem by Siegfried Sassoon — titled "Repression of War Experience" — that includes these lines: "And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad / Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts / That drive them out to jabber among the trees."

By Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of many books, including "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." His latest book, "War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine," was published in June 2023.

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