Friday, September 26, 2014

MHQ Tolkien

So, sometimes I forget it's a new world we live in. I default back to the days when Tolkien was considered a fringe figure: inexplicably popular but typecast as a fad whose day would soon pass. * Now that he's now well-established as a major twentieth century writer, he's become so much a part of our culture that his name constantly shows up in what would once have been surprising places.

Cast in point: I picked up the latest issue of MHQ: THE QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF MILITARY HISTORY (Autumn 2014), attracted by its cover article, which claims that T. E. Lawrence's "Arab Revolt" was of negligible military value, mainly a propaganda stunt that eventually bought into its own publicity, with unfortunate results. He similarly dismisses the 'French Resistence' as largely mythical, a face-saving exercise. All this and more (sabotage in Burma, struggles against Rommel) leads up to his main point, where he attributes the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu as due to their belief that they could defeat the Viet Mihn on the cheap, recruiting locals to form guerrilla groups as a counter-insurgency. It's an interesting piece, and all too relevant, whose argument I'll have to mull over -- food for thought.

In any case, having been intrigued by one piece in a journal I wouldn't otherwise have picked up, I thought I might as well skim the rest of the contents to see if anything else interesting showed up. Which is when I came across the photo of J. R. R. Tolkien (p. 15), heading up a short (two-page) article "Men of Letters, Men of War", with a paragraph each highlighting the military experience and literary accomplishments of nine authors who served** in World War I: C. S. Lewis, JRRT, Ernest Hemingway, Rbt Graves, Wilfred Owen (the greatest of the WWI poets, and the only other among these figures whose photo is included), Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Marie Remarque (for his classic ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whose war record I didn't know about), and Winston Churchill (whom it claims spent a few months in Flanders following the Gallipoli disaster he'd masterminded).

What really made me marvel when I read this was the thought: Since when does Hemingway come THIRD in a list of famous modern authors who served in the War? Back when I was in grad school, he would have automatically come in first on any such list (probably closely followed by a mention of Orwell's volunteering in the Spanish Civil War). Has Tolkien's, and Lewis's, fame really grown so great that it eclipses a figure like Hemingway, universally considered one of the three or four major American twentieth century novelists? That's hard for me to get my mind around: as I said, if true, it'd be a whole new world.

And now to read on, though I really doubt there'll be any more surprises herein to match that one.

--John R.

*Which over time evolved into Soon-ish. Then Eventually. And finally Surely Any Day Now. It's a narrative that goes back more than fifty years now, and to which former Deconstructionist Harold Bloom still clings

**I originally wrote 'fought', but Hemingway of course famously served as an ambulance driver, arguably a higher calling.


Paul W said...

I'm not surprised to find Tolkien in such company, though I do not believe the author intends the order as any sort of ranking. As a military historian myself, I can assure that Tolkien is well known and read by many in the field.

I do think you were somewhat unfair to Churchill. There is no 'claim' concerning his service in Flanders, its well known and well documented. It speaks well of the man, and unlike most politicians he was qualified to command a battalion in combat. How much blame he deserves for the execution of the Gallipoli campaign is debatable, but it was certainly an idea he enthusiastically championed.

I know you are a pacifist, but I hope you will consider reading more military history. I have no wish to change your moral stance, however much i disagree with it, but I think pacifists especially should be familiar with military history; not merely the broad strokes but the nuts and bolts of operations. Too many Americans are ignornt of military affairs, and since, whatever our intentions, the rest of the world is unlikely to forsake war, it behooves us all to understand it.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul
I expressed myself badly. It wasn't that I thought the journal had its facts wrong, it was that I was surprised to find a biographical fact of such importance about someone as well known as Churchill that I'd never come across before.

As someone with a deep interest in history (the son and grandson of historians), I am of course interested in the history of war and conflict just as I'm interested in periods of peace and prosperity. So I do read the occasional work on military history, but it's only one among a number of topics I read up on when I can.

And here's a question for you, as a military historian. I'm currently reading a book by a WWI submarine officer, writing in 1934, who attacks pacifists for inconsistency, saying that they oppose war by land and by sea but enthusiastically support bombing campaigns from the air. I have no idea what he's talking about -- does this ring any bells?

John R.

Paul W said...

I was perhaps over touchy. :)

Who is the WWI submarine officer? It sounds intriguing. His bombing comments likely revolve around Douhet's theories on smashing the enemies will through bombing civilian targets - a pre-atomic version of mutually assured destruction. But I suspect this author misunderstand pacifism if he thinks they would condone bombing at all. Some peace activists advocated bombing to make war too horrible to contemplate but not true pacifist.

David Bratman said...

It was well-known to me, but then I've read a little about Churchill. It's all covered in chapter 16 of Roy Jenkins' comprehensive biography of Churchill.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul

The officer was Captain Bernard Acworth (D.S.O.) in his book THIS PROGRESS [1934], about which I plan to post soon. The passage in question occurs in the chapter "Christianity and War", in which he says

"It is not one of the least strange phenomena of pacifism that its professors, who scornfully condemn great wars fought for great principles, condone, when they do not actively applaud, those little wars undertaken since 1918 on behalf of financial Interests, and waged with the assassin's weapon -- the bomb. Sea power, and a disciplined and merciful Christian army, are cursed as institutions of the devil, whereas the dark Power of the Air, and its shameful practices, are condoned, because, we must assume, this evil power is believed, erroneously, to be overwhelmingly potent. Thus do pacifists bow the knee and pay tribute to evil when evil is supposed to be sufficiently menacing." (p. 323)

I have to admit I can make nothing of this -- I shd have thought that most pacifist would object to bombing campaigns over other forms of warfare because they inevitably lead to more civilian casualties than direct confrontations (e.g., army vs. army). Certainly Tolkien, who believed in the concept of the Just War, was uneasy over bombing campaigns, even when carried out by 'the good guys'.

If Acworth is reflecting a position well known in the '20s and early '30s, some elucidation wd be much appreciated. Thanks for the reference to Douhet's theories, which I'll have to track down.

--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
Thanks for the reference; if at some point down the road I decide I need to read a Churchill biography, as seems likely, I now know which one to turn to.

Still a bit surprised that Churchill's having served on the Western Front doesn't feature a little more prominently in his legend. But I guess when you live a life as eventful as his, with so many ups and downs in it, some things just get crowded out (like most people who know even a little of Dunsany being aware of his WWI service, of his WWII Home Guard activities, and perhaps of his being shot by the Irish during the Easter Uprising, but not of his having also served in the Boer War).

--John R.

Paul W said...

Interesting. Looking at his Wikipedia entry, he had some rather eccentric views but we do not hear much about British submarinersin either WW. They started WWI with more subs then the Germans had, Admiral Fisher having been a big proponent. The British were famous for using air power to suppress the Iraqi revolt in 1920, though looking at the campaign the air supported the ground troops. Some Christians might have supported that. The Spanish Civil War saw the fascists use air power against civilians a great deal, and many, like Tolkien, supported Franco because the Church tended to support him against the anti-Clerical Republicans. But that comes after his book. Airpower was very 'evangelical' in this period, with people like Billy Mitchel claiming all future wars would be fought and won in the air. In the West, horror of the trenches was deep-rooted and many people would consider anything to avoid a reoccurrence of the WWI trench stalemate. The British created the first independent air forces (RAF, 1918) and fully subscribed to the strategic bombing concept (unlike the Luftwaffe which while independent was designed primarily to support the ground forces). He is likely reacting to talk of that sort amongst his fellow Christian military officers in Britain.

His eccentricity is common for British officers though - for example, Gen JFC Fuller, famous tank proponent and military historian, was a follower of Alaister Crowley in his younger years.