Amoeba’s Lorica: The White Feather (A Memorial Day Musing)

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.

So wrote J. R. R. Tolkien in his Preface to the second edition (the one most folk read) of The Lord of the Rings. He was responding to critics who found reason to believe that LOTR was an allegory of World War 2, reminding them that, though WW2 might (as it was then) still be fresh in the memories of readers, it was preceded by an even more brutal, dehumanizing conflict, World War 1, and if applicability of his story to actual events was to be sought, it must be sought (at the least) in that first war as well.

Military holidays 101Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba got started on this train of thought on account of because of a meme that’s viraled the internet in the runup to Memorial Day 2015. In few, the meme states that, in these Untied States of America, Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day, all commemorate those persons who have worn military uniforms in service to said Untied States, but that Armed Forces Day singles out those who are serving now, Veterans Day salutes those who have served and made it back alive, and Memorial Day remembers those who have served and made it back dead – or never made it back at all.

Poppies - Flanders FieldsIt was the Veterans Day definition that caused YFNA to get the irony out. For in most of the rest of the Western world, the focus of this commemoration day (it seems almost obscene to call it a ‘holiday’) is at least as much on those who perished as those who survived. Its name in English is not Veterans Day but Remembrance Day (formerly Armistice Day), and it remembers when, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918 C.E., the nations contesting WW1 agreed to have their armed forces stop the shooting. After four years of bloody, and especially on the western front mostly pointless, carnage that wiped out the menfolk of whole villages on both sides of the lines, and cost J.R.R. Tolkien all but one of his male friends.

Of course, this carnage mostly bypassed America. The USA didn’t enter WW1 until the latter half of 1917, and its troops didn’t start arriving in sufficient numbers to affect the warfronts until the middle of 1918, a mere four to five months before the armistice. Indeed, some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in the West resulted from a decision by the Central powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), though confronted with military exhaustion and domestic famine, to make one last push to win the war before the Americans arrived and overwhelmed them. Which they didn’t expect to happen until the end of 1918. The arrival and (barely sufficient) combat readiness of American troops half a year before the Central high command expected them foiled the plan, and led directly to the armistice and the end of the war – with disastrous results for the Central Powers, especially Germany.

It also led to a particularly nasty expression of ‘tude from what English commentators in the 19th century liked to call their ‘bumptious American cousins’. As Tolkien once wrote:

The Americans are not as a rule at all amenable to criticism or correction …

The message was, We won the war for you, so do what we tell you. And when Europe declined to do so, the Americans picked up their marbles and went home – with disastrous results for the peace of Europe and the world. They even abandoned their own President’s sensible plan for peace in the Western world – which was largely adopted after WW2, and survives mostly intact (despite constant assault by numerous influential elements of We the People) to the present day.

Besides. Americans already had a remembrance day – Memorial Day – focused on the almost-equally murderous (and much closer to home) Confederate Revolutionary War American “Civil War”. So there are lots of reasons why We the People of these Untied States have developed a different, and perhaps somewhat devalued, understanding of 11 November than the rest of the West.

In the runup to this Memorial Day 2015, as has been the case in America ever since the events of 11 September 2001, the social media are alive with messages thanking those who wear military uniform for their service and their sacrifice – too often, their ultimate sacrifice. In the name of engagements that seem to have, at best, an uncertain congruence with the stated ideals of the American nation. Yes, Buffy, we have come a long way from the days of ‘Universal Soldier’, eh?

When the shooting started in WW1, J.R.R. Tolkien was an undergraduate student at Oxford University. He chose, rather than enlisting immediately, to complete his studies (which he did, in 1915), applying for, and receiving, an official deferment of his enlistment – similar to the deferments available in the 1960s and early 1970s to Baby Boomers who were in college/university (YFNA’s hand is up here), allowing them to sit at home and burn waste paper draft cards instead of being shipped out to Vietnam. And, like many of those Baby Boomers, Tolkien caught flak for it:

In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.

White Feather being "awarded"It’s not recorded, at least not where YFNA can see it, whether Tolkien received a white feather for his pains, though he would have been a prime candidate of this movement, prosecuted mostly by women (though, to be fair, thought up by a male), to goad and humiliate able-bodied-looking men (whether or not they were, in fact, healthy) into signing up right this minute for the killing fields. Tolkien did record that the hints were “becoming outspoken” from members of his own family. So the newly-minted B.A. Tolkien enlisted and was shipped, as a second lieutenant, to France, where he escaped succumbing to bullets, artillery, or gas only because he succumbed to trench fever and other ailments. Millions of Tolkien’s compatriots were not so lucky. And they did the whole bloody mess over again twenty-two years later.

White Feather - Downton AbbeyThe White Feather featured in an episode of the acclaimed ITV/PBS television series Downton Abbey. In a commentary on the episode, The Telegraph columnist Michael Deacon wrote:

The “feather girls” shared this delusion that the Great War was some glorious game. It was easy for them to accuse others of cowardice, knowing that they would never be forced to prove their own bravery.

Rather, perhaps, like the Baby Boomers who were quick to condemn all war while they were at risk of dying in one, and are now equally quick to commend the service of others in wars of no greater moral rectitude than the ones they resisted but that now serve their purposes.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), “Disabled”

Lest we forget.

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2 Responses to Amoeba’s Lorica: The White Feather (A Memorial Day Musing)

  1. nancy says:

    you watch downton abbey? i did not know you possessed a television set.

    • Amoeba says:

      I discovered the Downton Abbey episode, and the commentary on it, online while researching the White Feather history. There is, in fact, a television set in the condo. It hasn’t been turned on in 2015, and it’s in a closed and locked cabinet.

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