“Testament of Youth” is the 600-page memoir by the British novelist Vera Brittain of her experiences before, during, and after World War One. It was effectively conveyed as a theatrical film this year. The movie captures most of the writer’s attitudes and reactions to those ten years of her life, and it received high praise from many critics. It is worth seeing, albeit, like the book, it’s long and mostly depressing.
But this kind of depression we can use more of, if, as a result, humanity finally learns that no war is a good war and that every war, even those that may be necessary to overcome evil, are horrific experiences for all who are touched by them.
In Ms. Brittain’s case, she was touched far too many times, losing to death in battle her fiancé, two of her dearest male friends, and her beloved brother. And she learned of all of those deaths as she served as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse assistant in the midst of many of the battlefields where her loved ones were killed.
But the heartbreaking aspects of her story go deeper even than those tragedies, for her tale is an account of innocence lost: the idealistic innocence of youth.
She begins her memoir shortly before the onset of the war. She is one of two children in an upper middle class British home. She applies to Oxford, hoping to be one of the few females admitted to the school. During the application process she meets her fiancé, a brilliant young poet who was already good friends of her brother and the other two men who later died.
In an early scene, she argues vehemently with her father, urging him to allow her brother to accept a commission to fight in the war. They (all the young men of that generation) were all similarly driven by their idealism: idealistic to the point of wanting to fight for “God and country,” as the saying went.
And they were naïve, as was she, about the horrors of war, assuming somehow, that they were bullet proof, or that the wounds from battle were not really all that painful or debilitating, or that the conditions they would experience in foxholes and in the open stretches of land between those foxholes would somehow not offer the most miserable form of bare existence, or that other people, the enemy, mostly, were the only ones who actually died.
Because it is a memoir that she wrote largely from her own diaries, Ms. Brittain’s book often appears to be written in real time, so that when she learns of her fiancé’s death, it is while she is waiting for him to come home for Christmas leave. The shock she feels is palpable – her first encounter with the reality of war. With each succeeding loss, she becomes increasingly bitter, even as she tends to the dying soldiers in the makeshift field hospitals where she is often the one who holds their hands as they breathe their last.
But her memoir doesn’t end with the end of the war. Instead, she carries her tale forward through a period of withdrawal and mournful reflection that takes her back to Oxford, where she seems only to go through the motions on the way to her degree. Then she begins to work for the League of Nations (allowing her idealism, now far more circumspect, to be sure) to once again express itself.
Her tale ends some five years later, when, having allowed herself to once again love, she marries and contemplates having children, wondering as she does how she will protect them from the horrors that humanity can create in the wars it wages.
And, of course, she can’t. For even as the world shuddered in the aftermath of the first Great War, a second one, even more horrific still, was on the none-too-distant horizon, waiting to introduce even more carnage and misery to all who were touched by it. And when that war ended, smaller wars took its place, a succession of them that make periods of peace seem almost accidental in the history of the human race.
I, too, have been naïve in my idealism. I actually thought that when the Cold War ended, we would realize a period of ever-lasting peace. Why, I thought, would nations have any reason to fight, with the battle of the isms now at an end? It didn’t take long for me to have that question answered. War, it would appear, is engrained in the human DNA, and its lessons are never learned, are, actually, incapable of being learned.
How else can George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq be explained? Or Vladimir Putin’s to invade Crimea? How else can al Qaeda and now ISIS be understood? How else can the never-ending hostilities and military brinksmanship between Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Shias and Sunnis, blacks and whites, Irish Catholics and British Protestants, and all the other groupings of humans who engage in battle with one another make sense?
I am often told in arguments on this subject that some wars are necessary, and I’m sure that is theoretically true. Hitler needed to be stopped from murdering millions. I suppose the South had to be stopped from seceding. I imagine our own Revolutionary War was necessary if we were to gain independence from the British Empire. Many will say that ISIS must be defeated in battle and that the cause of freedom justifies the cost in lives and dollars.
I can’t argue against any of those assertions with anything other than a cry for peace, and love, and understanding. At some point, idealism has to give way to reality. When the would-be killers are at your front door, you can’t pray them away.
Vera Brittain’s generation faced all of these issues in very real-life circumstances. Each generation has faced them in one form or another throughout the history of the human race.
We seem to be doomed to bring tragedy upon ourselves and to believe in our righteousness as we do.