An article has appeared in the Guardian with the above title. It is not actually about what we should read, but about what they should read, since, after a nod to the better-known war poets, it is mostly about books to give children at the time of the centenary of the Somme. Most highly recommended is the work of Michael Morpurgo, since, according to the author,
he makes it possible for contemporary children to understand better what happened and to understand how it was that teenagers like themselves could handle such dreadful situations.
The author’s highest praise is for Private Peaceful, ‘a remarkable and important book that needs to be read now to remember the Battle of the Somme but also at all times as a reminder of the essential need to preserve peace.’ I have written before about this book’s historical inaccuracies and ludicrous simplifications. It bears very little relation to any ‘truth about the war.’ (Read Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We to get an idea of what a faithful and insightful depiction of the war looks like.)
But of course, when well-meaning people say they want to inform children about the war, they do not generally mean that they want to expose children to historical accuracy, and all the confusion that that might engender. Rather, they want to give them a simple ‘War is bad; preachy people like us are good’ message. Private Peaceful does this job very effectively.
Books like this militate against historical understanding. Private Peaceful presents its young readers with a black and white world of moral simplification. Anyone who supports the war is nasty; anyone who is nice does not believe in the war. This is of course preposterously inaccurate about the Great War, which was supported, however unwillingly, by the great majority of the population as a righteous, though appallingly costly, battle against the evil of German militarism (and the better writers of the time explored the awkward paradox that you may need militarism to defeat militarism).
Morpurgo’s book propagates the myth of the Great War as a mere exercise in jingoism. The soldiers are innocents, forced to fight, who become the victims of cruel bullies. Such stories do nothing to prepare children for the complex world that they are growing up in. They merely encourage a moral complacency – the easy cost-free pacifism of those who are not asked to fight.
So what book would I recommend to young people who want to know about the war? I’d leave depictions of battle to the documentary films, and for reading I’d suggest Rilla of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery. It’s one of the Anne of Green Gables series, and describes the reaction of a small Canadian town to the war in which their young men are fighting. It has a lot to say about the idealism of the war, and about its cost. It’s a book to make you think, as well as feel.