When I was a kid, my father would give me helpful life lessons, such as what to do when slapped to the ground by a German soldier versus what to do when slapped to the ground by a Japanese soldier. Note that there are two assumptions here: (a) you’re a prisoner of war when this happens, and (b) the advice was presented as what to do when you’re slapped to the ground by a German or Japanese prisoner-of-war-camp guard, not if you’re slapped to the ground by a German or Japanese prisoner-of-war-camp guard. This phrasing, amongst similar phrasing in many of my father’s life lessons for me, contributed to a number of things in my life: (a) I didn’t realize that the Second World War was over until I was probably 9 years old–I used to freak when planes would fly overhead, not knowing whether they were friend or foe–and (b) I always assumed that really horrid shit was going to turn my world and my life upside down, one way or the other. I tell you all of this to give you some context (which is to say: my selfishly personal context) for today’s celebration of National Poetry Month: the fourth in Henry Reed’s Lessons of the war cycle. I’ll warn you again that there is reprehensibly racist language, as well as homophobia, in this poem; in reading it, I keep in mind that this comes out of the mouth of a character that Reed is criticizing. Reading this as an adult who “gagne son croûte” by working with language, I’m reminded of Krippendorff‘s discussion of pre-WWII Fascist propaganda and by the similarity between that Fascist propaganda and Trump’s message; it’s the weird mix of nationalism, racism/homophobia, and craven cowardice (is that a pleonasm? probably) in the character’s words that brings both pre-WWII Fascist propaganda and Donald Trump to mind for me.
The version of the poem that I’m giving you here is from the Sole Arabian Tree web site, your source for all things Reedian. Unfortunately, I don’t have a source for a recording of Reed reading this one. The promised illustrations precede the poems, and explain (or try to) some of the language in the poem.
LESSONS OF THE WAR
V. PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE
This above all remember: they will be very brave men,
And you will be facing them. You must not despise them.
I am, as you know, like all true professional soldiers,
A profoundly religious man: the true soldier has to be.
And I therefore believe the war will be over by Easter Monday.
But I must in fairness state that a number of my brother-officers,
No less religious than I, believe it will hold out till Whitsun.
Others, more on the agnostic side (and I do not condemn them)
Fancy the thing will drag on till August Bank Holiday.
Be that as it may, some time in the very near future,
We are to expect Invasion … and invasion not from the sea.
Vast numbers of troops will be dropped, probably from above,
Superbly equipped, determined and capable; and this above all,
Remember: they will be very brave men, and chosen as such.
You must not, of course, think I am praising them.
But what I have said is basically fundamental
To all I am about to reveal: the more so, since
Those of you that have not seen service overseas—
Which is the case with all of you, as it happens—this is the first time
You will have confronted them. My remarks are aimed
At preparing you for that.
Everyone, by the way, may smoke,
And be as relaxed as you can, like myself.
I shall wander among you as I talk and note your reactions.
Do not be nervous at this: this is a thing, after all,
We are all in together.
I want you to note in your notebooks, under ten separate headings,
The ten points I have to make, remembering always
That any single one of them may save your life. Is everyone ready?
Very well then.
The term, Psychological Warfare
Comes from the ancient Greek: psycho means character
And logical, of course, you all know. We did not have it
In the last conflict, the fourteen-eighteen affair,
Though I myself was through it from start to finish. (That is point one.)
I was, in fact, captured—or rather, I was taken prisoner—
In the Passchendaele show (a name you will all have heard of)
And in our captivity we had a close opportunity
(We were all pretty decently treated. I myself
Was a brigadier at the time: that is point two)
An opportunity I fancy I was the only one to appreciate
Of observing the psychiatry of our enemy
(The word in those days was always psychology,
A less exact description now largely abandoned). And though the subject
Is a highly complex one, I had, it was generally conceded,
A certain insight (I do not know how, but I have always, they say,
Had a certain insight) into the way the strangest things ebb up
From what psychoanalysts now refer to as the self-conscious.
It is possibly for this reason that I have been asked
To give you the gist of the thing, the—how shall I put it?—
I was not of course captured alone
(Note that as point three) so that I also observed
Not only the enemy’s behaviour; but ours. And gradually, I concluded
That we all of us have, whether we like it or lump it,
Our own individual psychiatry, given us, for better or worse,
By God Almighty. I say this reverently; you often find
These deeper themes of psychiatry crudely but well expressed
In common parlance. People say: ‘We are all as God made us.’
And so they are. So are the enemy. And so are some of you.
This I in fact observed: point four. Not only the enemy
Had their psychiatry, but we, in a different sense,
Had ours. And I firmly believe you cannot (point six) master
Their psychiatry before you have got the gist of your own.
Let me explain more fully: I do not mean to imply
That any, or many, of you are actually mentally ill.
Though that is what the name would imply. But we, your officers,
Have to be aware that you, and many of your comrades,
May have a sudden psychiatry which, sometimes without warning,
May make you feel (and this is point five) a little bit odd.
I do not mean that in the sense of anything nasty:
I am not thinking of those chaps with their eyes always on each other
(Sometimes referred to as homosensualists
And easily detected by the way they lace up their boots)
But in the sense you may all feel a little disturbed,
Without knowing why, a little as if you were feeling an impulse,
Without knowing why: the term for this is ambivalence.
Often referred to for some mysterious reason,
By the professionals as Amby Valence,
As though they were referring to some nigger minstrel.
(Not, of course, that I have any colour prejudice:
After all, there are four excellent West Nigerians among you,
As black as your boot: they are not to blame for that.)
At all events this ambivalence is to be avoided.
Note that as point seven: I think you all know what I mean:
In the Holy Scriptures the word begins with an O,
Though in modern parlance it usually begins with an M.
You have most of you done it absentmindedly at some time or another,
But repeated, say, four times a day, it may become almost a habit,
Especially prone to by those of sedentary occupation,
By pale-faced clerks or schoolmasters, sitting all day at a desk,
Which is not, thank God, your position: you are always
More or less on the go: and that is what
(Again deep in the self-conscious) keeps you contented and happy here.
Even so, should you see some fellow-comrade
Give him all the help you can. In the spiritual sense, I mean,
With a sympathetic word or nudge, inform him in a manly fashion
‘Such things are for boys, not men, lad.’
Everyone, eyes front!
I pause, gentlemen.
I pause. I am not easily shocked or taken aback,
But even while I have been speaking of this serious subject
I observe that one of you has had the effrontery—
Yes, you at the end of row three! No! Don’t stand up, for God’s sake, man,
And don’t attempt to explain. Just tuck it away,
And try to behave like a man. Report to me
At eighteen hundred hours. The rest of you all eyes front.
I proceed to point six.
The enemy itself,
I have reason to know is greatly prone to such actions.
It is something we must learn to exploit: an explanation, I think,
Is that they are, by and large, undeveloped children,
Or adolescents, at most. It is perhaps to do with physique,
And we cannot and must not ignore their physique as such.
(Physique, of course, being much the same as psychiatry.)
They are usually blond, and often extremely well-made,
With large blue eyes and very white teeth,
And as a rule hairless chests, and very smooth, muscular thighs,
And extremely healthy complexions, especially when slightly sunburnt.
I am convinced there is something in all this that counts for something.
Something probably deep in the self-conscious of all of them.
Undeveloped children, I have said, and like children,
As those of you with families will know,
They are sometimes very aggressive, even the gentlest of them.
All the same we must not exaggerate; in the words of Saint Matthew:
‘Clear your minds of cant.’ That is point five: note it down.
Do not take any notice of claptrap in the press
Especially the kind that implies that the enemy will come here,
Solely with the intention of raping your sisters.
I do not know why it is always sisters they harp on:
I fancy it must ebb up from someone’s self-conscious.
It is a patent absurdity for two simple reasons: (a)
They cannot know in advance what your sisters are like:
And (b) some of you have no sisters. Let that be the end of that.
There are much darker things than that we have to think of.
It is you they consider the enemy, you they are after.
And though, as Britishers, you will not be disposed to shoot down
A group of helpless men descending from the heavens,
Do not expect from them—and I am afraid I have to say this—gratitude:
They are bound to be over-excited,
As I said, adolescently aggressive, possibly drugged,
And later, in a macabre way, grotesquely playful.
Try to avoid being playfully kicked in the crutch,
Which quite apart from any temporary discomfort,
May lead to a hernia. I do not know why you should laugh.
I once had a friend who, not due to enemy action
But to a single loud sneeze, entirely his own, developed a hernia,
And had to have great removals, though only recently married.
(I am sorry, gentlemen, but anyone who finds such things funny
Ought to suffer them and see. You deserve the chance to.
I must ask you all to extinguish your cigarettes.)
There are other unpleasant things they may face you with.
You may, as I did in the fourteen-eighteen thing,
Find them cruelly, ruthlessly, starkly obsessed with the arts,
Music and painting, sculpture and the writing of verses,
Please, do not stand for that.
Our information is
That the enemy has no such rules, though of course they may have.
We must see what they say when they come. There can, of course,
Be no objection to the more virile arts:
In fact in private life I am very fond of the ballet,
Whose athleticism, manliness and sense of danger
Is open to all of us to admire. We had a ballet-dancer
In the last mob but three, as you have doubtless heard.
He was cruelly teased and laughed at—until he was seen in the gym.
And then, my goodness me! I was reminded of the sublime story
Of Samson, rending the veil of the Temple.
I do not mean he fetched the place actually down; though he clearly did what he could.
Though for some other reason I was never quite clear about,
And in spite of my own strong pressure on the poor lad’s behalf,
And his own almost pathetic desire to stay on with us,
He was, in fact, demobilized after only three weeks’ service,
Two and a half weeks of which he spent in prison.
Such are war’s tragedies: how often we come upon them!
(Everyone may smoke again, those that wish.)
This brings me to my final point about the psychiatry
Of our formidable foe. To cope with it,
I know of nothing better than the sublime words of Saint Paul
In one of his well-known letters to the Corinthians:
‘This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day
No man can take thee in.’
‘This above all’: what resonant words those are!
They lead me to point nine, which is a thing
I may have a special thing about, but if so,
Remember this is not the first war I have been through.
I refer (point nine this is) to the question of dignity.
Dignity. Human dignity. Yours. Never forget it, men.
Let it sink deep into your self-consciousness,
While still remaining plentifully available on the surface,
In the form of manly politeness. I mean, in particular, this:
Never behave in a manner to evoke contempt
Before thine enemy. Our enemy, I should say.
Comrades, and brothers-in-arms,
And those especially who have not understood my words,
You were not born to live like cowards or cravens:
Let me exhort you: never, whatever lies you have heard,
Be content to throw your arms on the ground and your other arms into the air and squawk ‘Kaputt!’
It is unsoldierly, unwarlike, vulgar, and out of date,
And may make the enemy laugh. They have a keen sense of humour,
Almost (though never quite, of course) as keen as our own.
No: when you come face to face with the foe, remember dignity,
And though a number of them do fortunately speak English,
Say, proudly, with cold politeness, in the visitor’s own language:
‘Ich ergebe mich.’ Ich meaning I,
Ergebe meaning surrender, and mich meaning me.
Ich ergebe mich.’ Do not forget the phrase.
Practise it among yourselves: do not let it sound stilted,
Make it sound idiotish, as if you were always saying it,
Only always cold in tone: icy, if necessary:
It is such behaviour that will make them accord you
The same respect that they accorded myself,
At Passchendaele. (Incidentally,
You may also add the word nicht if you feel inclined to,
Nicht meaning not. It will amount to much the same thing.)
Dignity, then, and respect: those are the final aims
Of psychiatric relations, and psychological warfare.
They are the fundamentals also of our religion.
I may have mentioned my own religious intuitions:
They are why I venture to think this terrible war will be over
On Easter Monday, and that the invasion will take place
On either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday,
Probably the Thursday, which in so very many
Of our great, brave, proud, heroic and battered cities,
Is early closing day, as the enemy may have learnt from their agents.
Alas, there may be many such days in the immediate future.
But remember this in the better world we all have to build,
And build by ourselves alone—for the government
May well in the next few weeks have withdrawn to Canada—
What did you say? The man in row five. He said something.
Stand up and repeat what you said.
I said ‘And a sodding good job’, sir, I said, sir.
I have not asked anyone for political comments, thank you,
However apt. Sit down. I was saying:
That in the better world we all have to try to build
After the war is over, whether we win or lose,
Or whether we all agree to call it a draw,
We shall have to try our utmost to get used to each other,
To live together with dignity and respect.
As our Lord sublimely said in one of his weekly Sermons on the Mount
Outside Jerusalem (where interestingly enough,
I was stationed myself for three months in 1926):
‘A thirteenth commandment I give you (this is point ten)
That ye love one another.’ Love, in Biblical terms,
Meaning of course not quite what it means today,
But precisely what I have called dignity and respect.
And that, men, is the great psychiatrical problem before you:
Of how on God’s earth we shall ever learn to attain some sort
And due respect.
Thank you; God bless you, men. Good afternoon.