There is to be a new movie made from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth starring Saoirse Ronan, as we learn from The Daily Telegraph of London. Yesterday, that newspaper offered the hospitality of its columns to Mark Bostridge, brother of the tenor Ian Bostridge and Vera Brittain’s biographer to explain why her book "continues to enthral us." The answer, according to Mr Bostridge, "is the overwhelming power of the book’s portrayal of four public schoolboys, destined for university in the summer of 1914, who respond to the call of King and Country, and who, one by one, are killed. There is nothing else in the prose literature of the First World War — not in Graves nor in Blunden or Sassoon — that so eloquently and movingly conveys the suffering and bereavement inflicted by the 1914-18 conflict."
One gathers that he is a fan. Well, lots of people are. The BBC made a five-part mini-series of Testament of Youth back in 1979, and the book, first published in 1933, is still in print. But I think Mr Bostridge is wrong to say that it is mainly her literary powers which keep people interested in her story. Powerful as the portrait of her own bereavement and suffering is, what really makes people come back to these old griefs and grievances of people now long dead (Vera Brittain herself died in 1970) is what the author herself hoped to achieve by adumbrating them, namely the impetus that portrait gives to the false and pacifistic view that World War I and, by implication, all wars should be regarded as optional — "wars of choice" to use the current idiotic expression — and therefore the result of stupid or wicked choices made by politicians and generals with some ulterior motive in sacrificing their country’s youth unnecessarily.
It should not be necessary to point out that this was not something people thought at the time. Horrible as the slaughter of the First World War no doubt was, virtually everybody engaged in it believed — how could they have thought otherwise and continued to do what they did and suffer what they suffered? — that the war had to be fought. The Central Powers had violated Belgian neutrality and attacked Britain’s allies in France and Russia. Not to have gone to war under the circumstances would have been all but unthinkable and would have resulted in an indelible stain on Britain’s national honor. It would have been like America’s not going to war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Or after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
But Testament of Youth is a sustained attack on the whole idea of honor, both national and personal. Rightly recognizing it as the reason people go to war, Vera Brittain as a convert to pacifism sought to undermine the concept with the immense non sequitur of her own personal loss. See how I suffer? Therefore you must disarm! Those, like Mr Bostridge, who are her allies in this enterprise, witting or unwitting, find that it helps to propagate the myth that the honor and patriotism of those who fought was "naive." They didn’t really know what the horrors of the war were like, therefore they needed the likes of Miss Brittain to point them out. Therefore we need periodic revivals of her Testament. Once people have been taught that war involves killing — and the terrible grief of those who have lost loved ones as a result of it — they will choose not to fight another time.
That many did so choose during the 1930s — and that many more would so choose today — does not lessen the foolishness of the pacifists’ point of view. They, it seems to me, are the naive ones. Those who fought the war out of a sense of duty and honor and patriotism knew very well the suffering that it entailed. Those who retrospectively told them that it had all been unnecessary, by contrast, could do so only by making the stupendously naive and almost never examined assumption that a refusal to fight would have resulted in no bad consequences of its own, but merely a return to the status quo ante. That’s what the stupid "war of choice" meme was about as well. If you could merely choose not to fight who would ever choose otherwise?
Vera Brittain’s passive-aggressive exploitation of her own grief for political purposes has been her legacy to anti-war movements ever since and could have been the model for Cindy Sheehan, if Cindy Sheehan had had any more interest than Vera Brittain did in anything beyond her own pain. It is impossible not to sympathize with that pain, as both women knew very well when they tried to leverage it into political influence. Mrs Sheehan briefly became the face of the anti-Iraq war movement under the Bush administration and a minor celebrity — until her usefulness to the left ended with the election of Barack Obama. She continues her anti-war activities to this day — and has added to them the whole laundry-list of left-wing desiderata — but for some reason the media appear to have lost interest in her. Yet another revival for Vera Brittain, however, may give her hopes for a second act to her own career.