M. Eksteins No.2 Reason and Madness

M. Eksteins No.2 Reason and Madness - V Reason in Madness O...

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V Reason in Madness O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come. ISAAC WATTS I think no permanent change of importance has been made by the War in the character, customs and habits of the people. MICHAEL MACDONAGH 1916 I'm going back to Blighty, which I left to strafe the 'Un; I've fought in bloody battles, and I've 'ad a 'eap of fun; But now me flipper's busted, and I think me dooty's done, And I'll kiss me gel in Blighty in the mawnin'. Christmas card verse, British Red Cross Society, 1917 THEIRS WAS NOT TO REASON WHY Schoolteachers, coal miners, bank clerks, poultry farmers; gentry, urban middle class, laborers, and peasantry—in the midst of the fury, what kept them in the trenches? What sustained them on the edge of no man's land, that strip of territory which death ruled with an iron fist? What made them go over the top, in long rows that, despite the noise, terrain, terror, and confusion, remained remarkably orderly? What sustained them in constant confrontation with death or its symbols, in attack and counterattack; in defense or on fatigues or on marches; in summer and winter; in the fire line, in support, in reserve, at rest, and, perhaps the supreme test, on leave? We are talking here not of professional armies but of mass armies, of volunteers and conscripts, such as the world had not seen before, and we are talking not about military systems in which obedience was achieved by the knout or the noose or the bed of Procrustes. Desertion was still punishable by death, and courts-martial were active in this war, but the incidence of insubordination and sedition was minuscule in relation to the numbers of men under arms and in view of the conditions they had to brave. The question of what kept men going in this hell of the Western Front is central to an understanding of the war and its significance. What becomes clear from the diaries and letters of front soldiers is that in front-line service, particularly in action but in routine duty as well, the senses become so dulled by the myriad Eksteins, “Reason in Madness”: Page 1 of 15
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assaults on them that each man tended after a short while to live according to reflexes. He functioned instinctively. Of course self-preservation was an important instinct, but even more important, considering the situation the soldier found himself in, were the firm rules of behavior the military laid out and especially the social norms that constituted the broader context of the military. Reflexes and instincts were in large part prescribed by the soldier's society. Of an attack Alan Thomas wrote afterward: "The noise, the smoke, the smell of gunpowder, the rat-tat of rifle and machine gun fire combined to numb the senses. I was aware of myself and others going forward, but of little else." Thomas may have been unaware of why he was going forward, but going forward he was, loyally, dutifully, honorably, for many reasons; and most of these reasons were positive, not negative. "The cause," with its multitude
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M. Eksteins No.2 Reason and Madness - V Reason in Madness O...

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