In Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the title character learns that Julius Caesar, far from giving speeches about glory and sacrifice to his troops before battle, joked with them instead – and, at least once, gestured suggestively with a turnip. Wisely, Claudius ignores his written speech about honour for an impromptu one.
This episode made me realize a basic fact about war literature: If a piece talks about heroism and fallen comrades, it was probably written by a non-combatant, or by a veteran long after the fact. From this fact alone, you can usually judge how authentic a piece of war literature really is. Graves himself, as a veteran of World War I and a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, was in a position to know this fact, and I believe he was the first to record the observation.
This observation explains, for example, why Rudyard Kipling is so often admired by those who have soldiered. Possibly, Kipling doesn’t get the tone of his poems and stories quite right, partly because he was a civilian, and partly because, in describing soldiers’ lives to the audience at home, he often lectured. However, he is close enough that soldiers from any war recognize the type of life he describes, with its inside references, jokes about officers, and low level griping.
I was reminded of this touchstone when I woke a few days ago with a song I had heard over a decade ago at the Vancouver Folk Festival. It was a song about the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and its defense of Jarama, set to the tune of “The Red River Valley.”
The first two verses of the original are:
There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That’s a place that we all know so well,
for ’tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.
From this valley they tell us we’re leaving
But don’t hasten to bid us adieu
For e’en though we make our departure
We’ll be back in an hour or two.
By contrast, this is the version of the song heard a few years later at a reunion of British survivors:
There’s a Valley in Spain called Jarama,
It’s a place that we all know so well,
It is there that we gave of our manhood,
And so many of our brave comrades fell.
We are proud of the British Battalion
And the stand for Madrid that they made,
For they fought like true sons of the soil.
As part of the Fifteenth Brigade.
Only a few years separate the two versions, but the falseness has already crept in – no doubt because those who sang the second version are not only survivors, but survivors of a cause that was utterly defeated. The original’s reference to manhood has changed from a complaint to a reference to self-sacrifice, and all sense of humor thoroughly scrubbed from the song. Now, the soldiers are not simply learning one of the truisms of war – that it includes long stretches of boredom and futility – but have become “true sons of the soil” (whatever that might mean when applied to foreigners fighting in Spain).
Similarly, the original ends with, “So remember the Jarama Valley / And the old men who wait patiently,” while the later version ends with, “So before we continue this reunion / Let us stand to our glorious dead.” The difference in the description of the soldiers or the tone can hardly be greater.
Apparently, this is a fundamental difference that is almost impossible to overcome. Woodie Guthrie, who sang his own version of the song, does better than the reunion version, writing that “we saw a peaceful valley turn to hell,” but even a songwriter of his talent cannot resist promising to return in victory, when the valley’s inhabitants will “breathe in our new freedom’s air.”
I understand the reasons why nostalgia might transform the experience. If nothing else, the songwriters and singers are eager to find some compensation in their defeat, and all of them were idealistic men.
Yet, even so, I far prefer the genuine sentiments of the original. Maybe I am deceiving myself, but the cynical humor of the original seems to tell me far more about war is actually like for those who live through it.