Today’s reports of the wars America is fighting present a confusing muddle of information. We are making no headway in separating the good from the bad. Some media sources praise our soldiers for their exploits while portraying our enemies as heartless killers. Some sources claim we are causing problems among innocent men and women. Most of these messages are presented as absolute. You should either believe one viewpoint or the other. There exists no continuum of beliefs—just a black or white vision of events. While Siegfried Sassoon’s views were rejected in his time, he presents a clear separation between the views of the civilians and the soldiers. At the same time, Sassoon’s consideration of the men and women on both sides of the war makes up the gray area today’s media seems to ignore.
Sassoon begins with the public extolling the courage and success of the soldiers. He writes, “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave, / Or wounded in a mentionable place. / You worship decorations; you believe / That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace” (lines 1-4). After chastising the public for their beliefs, Sassoon goes on to describe the “war’s disgrace” in two parts. First, Sassoon states, “You make us shells. You listen with delight, / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled. / You crown our distant ardours while we fight” (lines 5-7). Here, Sassoon recognizes the discrepancy in the views of the public and the soldiers. As the soldiers are on the battlefields killing each other, the public is “thrilled” by the danger and bravery of the stories. But Sassoon adds reality into the mix by saying, “You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’ / When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run, / Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood” (lines 9-11). Perhaps partly due to propaganda and partly due to a desire to see progress and goodness in the midst of loss, the public ignores the reality of retreats and death. What Sassoon reminds his readers is that retreat happens to all men eventually. The soldiers are the only ones seeing the reality of the war, the killing, and the retreats. As he points out, the public refuses to see the horror, the blood, and the moral dilemmas soldiers face. The public can ignore the feelings of disgrace and hopelessness that can accompany killing another woman’s son, but the soldiers see the pain and loss of life on both sides of the battlefield. This discrepancy points to the second disgrace.
The men in both armies have mothers, fathers, siblings, wives, and children back home. As hard as the propaganda ministries may work to demonize the enemy, those soldiers are still men. While English mothers celebrate the bravery of their sons, their sons are out killing other women’s children. One of the reasons this poem may not have been accepted when it was published is that it forces readers to acknowledge humanity on both sides of the war. Sassoon writes, “O German mother dreaming by the fire, / While you are knitting socks to send your son / His face is trodden deeper in the mud” (lines 12-15). Here, the mother knits and dreams of her son with pride and a mother’s pure love even as he is dead and decaying face down in the mud.