War and Degradation

When I was marking A-Level papers this summer, one of the favourite lines quoted by students was from Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong. The book’s hero, Stephen, says at one point:

This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.

The students mostly used the sentence, reasonably enough, to back up their argument that conditions in the trenches were awful, but its repetition in script after script as I was marking made me increasingly aware that it is not a very perceptive sentence.
By making this contrast between war and degradation (as though there were types of war that did not involve the attempted degredation of the enemy) Faulks’s hero is surely showing a remarkable naivety.
The aim of war is always to degrade the enemy. The most extreme form of degradation, of course, is to kill him, or to maim him seriously enough to put him out of action. If a soldier cannot do that, he must aim to deliver a degrading and punishing blow to the man’s morale.
Before 1914, a cavalry charge was the most effective weapon of degradation; massive thundering horses bore down on a line of infantry until it scattered in panic. Traditional sieges reduced the enemy to starving wrecks, and humiliated them into surrender. The aim of war is to find the enemy’s breaking point, whether physical or moral, and once you have found it to go for it with all your might.
At the point in the novel when Stephen makes his protesting comment, the Germans’ means of degradation is artillery bombardment, with shells so large and powerful that the explosion leaves no trace of the man they hit. This is not only producing numerous casualties; it is also having a notable effect on English morale, since Stephen for one feels himself degraded by the constant inhuman barrage.
But to say “This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.” is ridiculous. The extreme push to degrade the soldiers of the other side is precisely what defines war. To think otherwise is to pretend that there exists some nicer type of war, in which soldiers do not attempt to kill, maim and demoralise their enemies.
Of course, there are politicians who like to pretend that such wars can be waged. Hence the current rumpus about the leaked documents that show how vicious and destructive the war in Afghanistan has been. Did people really think that a war against the ruthless and determined Taliban could be fought without ruthlessness; that troops on a “policing operation” could be like old-fashioned bobbies, devoting all their efforts to being nice to people?
No. War is by definition horrible. Which is why it should be very much the last resort for any government, and why leaders who take their countries irresponsibly into conflicts are very wicked indeed.
I’m re-reading Birdsong at the moment, and may post a fuller review of it later.



  1. Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    They used a line from a novel published in 1993 to back up their case that conditions in the trenches were awful?

    I spy a flaw in their argument!

  2. Posted July 28, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    But it’s better than citing Blackadder as historical fact, as some candidates preferred to do.

  3. Floriane Gabriel
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I am currently reading Birdsong and I came across that quote and found it interesting enough to look it up on google. I agree with what you say that all wars have the purpose of degrading the enemy and thus this statement should apply to all wars and not this particular one. However when I read it I understood it as meaning how far can men from “our” side be degraded. I think Stephen was referring to the degradation of the English soldiers saying how far can these men be degraded to win this war or before they “break” or something like this.
    Let me know what you think, I’d be interested in your opinion

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