Siegfried Sassoon, Hopelessness and Iraq

Snooping around the charity shops of West London a week past, I spied a copy of Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalized autobiography, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, on sale for £1. The discovery of such a volume came as a revelation as although I had been aware of and enjoyed Sassoon’s poetic work (along with Wilfred Owen) since I was a preteen, I had no idea that he also published prose. At a quid, I would have been the worst sort of miser not to pick it up.

The scale of the whole thing – the de-humanizing conditions, the destruction of so many lives, the sheer hopelessness of it all – is nothing less than horrifying. I remember reading in Savage Continent, Keith Lowe’s brilliant history of continental Europe in the years following World War 2, that Britain sustained three times the number of dead in WW1 than in WW2. That’s around a million dead. A lot of people. But statistics are just numbers on a page. To put a human face, a life, a mind to each corpse is a different matter. Sassoon’s novel articulates the desperation and disillusionment of such a horrid situation in a hauntingly matter-of-fact manner. In one particularly striking fragment, the novel’s protagonist, George Sherston, reflects on his time in no-man’s land:

“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. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes-gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. And the dead were the dead; this was no time to be pitying them or asking silly questions about their outraged lives. Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.”

Disillusioned by his time in the trenches, Sassoon became one of the war’s staunchest critics, famously sending an open letter to his commanding officer in which he outlined his refusal to return to the front line. It is far from difficult for one to notice parallels between Sassoon’s novel and the current situation in the Middle East. In one segment (that I found surprisingly little reference to online) Sassoon refers to Britain’s interests in the Middle East during the Great War, writing:

And now Markingdon had gloomily informed me that our Aims were essentially acquisitive, what we were fighting for was the Mesopotamian Oil Wells. A jolly fine swindle it would have been for me, if I’d been killed in April for an Oil Well.

(An interesting detail perhaps worthy of mention here is that Sassoon’s cousin, a man by the name of Sassoon Eskell, was an important figure in the creation and the establishment of the Kingdom of Iraq in the years following the war. As a matter of fact, Eskell was assigned with protecting what was then suspected to be substantial oil reserves in Iraq.)

To attribute a lust for oil on the part of the United States as the sole motivation for their invasion of Iraq is a vulgar oversimplification of the matter, especially given that China is currently benefiting most from the securing of Iraqi oil.  However, discussing Iraq without the issue of oil rearing its ugly mug is next to impossible. Much like Godwin’s Law that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1,” any conversation concerning Iraq will ultimately collapse into an argument about oil. The well-being of the Iraqi people and the installation of a stable, democratic political system becomes an irrelevance. With so much information and and misinformation flying from either side of the political spectrum, and the press providing little clarity on the subject, it is hard to say exactly what we are doing over there. One thing for certain is that there is little end in sight for the Middle East’s problems. It’s all thoroughly confusing and damnably frustrating.

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