hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 2 November 2015

Testament of Youth

“Politics is the executive expression of human immaturity”.

Vera Brittan

Detroit, Michigan. 1 November. I am sitting in the Sky Club lounge at Detroit Airport bored out of my brain awaiting my delayed connection to Austin, Texas. So, I decided to write a blog. It may surprise regular readers of this modest blog that one of my favourite books is Testament of Youth, Vera Brittan’s war memoir to end all war memoirs. It is a story of indescribable loss. Loss of family, friends and love on the charnel fields of the First World War. It is also a story of immeasurable hope as women begin their long journey to rightful and righteous equality. At times the book touches me personally. Brittan’s description of her entry into Oxford University and her fight to be treated with the respect her mind deserved chimes sharply with my own experience amidst the ivory towers and dreaming spires some sixty years later. Indeed, I was the first, or at least one of the first, to gain entry to Oxford from an ordinary state, comprehensive school utterly ill-prepared for my entry into a society of whom I had had little experience.  It was more than intimidating. It was terrifying.  I simply did not belong.

Brittan’s elegiac eloquence speaks for a slaughtered generation. Indeed, the book marks the end of innocence at so many levels, a Cri de Coeur of a young woman trying to make sense of staggering loss. In so doing Brittan pleads across a century to understand the place, the role and the rights of the individual in the face of dark, distant, and unimaginably dangerous power. Having worked as a nurse at the front Brittan became a pacifist, blaming war itself for her loss. However, war was only the agent of death for it was a failure of vision, politics and strategy at the top that doomed those she loved.  Above all, it was a failure at the top of power to understand how an apparently enduring peace could so quickly become industrial, total war.

A century on as I cast my mind across today’s Europe there is none of the nationalistic “it will all be over by Christmas” hubris from which all the soon-to-be warring nations suffered in 1914. Rather, the opposite is happening. As illiberal predators emerge from the dark recesses of intolerance and gather at Europe’s periphery they see Europe not as strong and steadfast. No, they see Europe as prey full of the weak, the hapless and the irresponsibly well-meaning. Indeed, it is as though Europe has become one vast ivory tower, a vast ‘Oxford’ in which a hallowed elite see very real risk, threat and danger as some abstract concept to be debated but not acted upon.

If ever there was a case of lions being led by donkeys it is Europe today.  With society-breaking migration destroying free movement by moving all too freely; with a resurgent Russia ‘righting’ imaginary ‘wrongs’ on its reeling region; and with a woeful world growing more dangerous by the day European leaders are clueless. Instead, they have resorted to a form of pacifism to mask the extent of their impotence and the implications of their incompetence from Europe’s people. It is a pacifism that is so pacific that it wallows in a mire of liberal contradictions, self-denying and self-paralysing in equal measure.

When I cast my eye across this world what I see is coming war - big war as frictions and falsehoods are magnified by self-willed liberal retreat and self-obsessed illiberal challenge. It is a world in which unscrupulous and intolerant power seeks dominion over the innocent and/or irresolute through warped history, faith, and warped world a view.

Oxford taught me that one must have the ambition to think and to think big for it is ideas that change worlds and I see such thinking in all three works of the Testament trilogy. Indeed, what I love about Testament of Youth is its bigness, its grandeur. Its bigness of spirit, its bigness of humanity, and its bigness of idea. Brittan’s bigness is that she manages to turn her yawning loss into a quest for peace. Her testimony to the four lost loves in her life is not some carved headstone but an idea; that war must never again happen. However, in celebrating innocence Testament of Youth is also a stark warning to all free citizens not to be reduced to impotent innocence by self-interested ‘leave it all to us’ politicians, to blindly trust power like children trust parents.

Testament of Youth is a book I have read many times because each time I read it I discover something new about myself, the society I help shape, and the liberal values which I cherish but which I believe need defending. Where Brittan and I part company is how best to prevent war. For her war was an intrinsic evil which she hints via her feminist creed is endemic to all men. Like many of her traumatised generation she also believed that if one removes the ability to wage war then war will be ended. There are strains of both schools of thought in today’s debate over the nature and method of European security and defence.  However, for me war is a function of a structure broken by the eternal struggle between different views of power. One can never prevent war by the free rendering themselves powerless in the hope that tyranny will see their reason.

Julian Lindley-French


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