Life in the Trenches

A powerful scene in Pat Barker’s World War I novel Regeneration depicts a conversation between literary giants Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon as they convalesce at the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart, Scotland. Owen relates a poignant revelation he discovered in the trenches about life and loss:

Sometimes, in the trenches, you get the sense of something, ancient. One trench we held, it had skulls in the side, embedded, like mushrooms. It was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army, than to think they’d been alive a year ago. It was as if all the other wars had distilled themselves into this war, and that made it something you almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice, saying; ‘Run along, little man, be glad you’ve survived.

We are not yet in a situation like the one that the Great War generation witnessed, whether it was the war itself or the epidemic that punctuated its end. Not by a long shot. Yet the traumas of watching the world aflame remain very real. In varying degrees, from watching self-serving political leaders spin tragedy for political gain and those with a stone-age grasp of the scientific and theological flout reason, to job loss and personal financial crisis, to the sadly real threat of sickness and death, the anxiety of this moment is slowly crushing our optimism about the future.

It is also making us relive old traumas, some recent, others from the distant past. Like Owen’s fictionalized words, at some moment it seems like all of the world’s failings and our own personal sufferings are being distilled into this single frame. It is overwhelming.

I couldn’t sleep last night. I was too busy thinking about a close friend’s grandson, a boy the same age as my oldest son, who four years ago in late March died unexpectedly of the flu just days after his third birthday. The love and education and means and medical might available to his parents meant nothing to the virus. The world is as helpless now as they were then.

But in that hour I also felt a little bit like Owen, turning a corner on the futility of it all. There was only so much I can control. Indeed, this is a central philosophical theme in Barker’s novel. When a psychotherapist convinces Sassoon to not make his self-immolating protest against a war that he believed unjust, the therapist does so by reminding him that the best that Sassoon can hope to accomplish out of the world he inhabits can be found back at the front, leading in battle the men who respect him most.

It’s not a call for you to give up on working for change. Nor does it always mitigate our tangible grief. But it is about accepting and working within one’s limitations. And as we are in a marathon, not a sprint, it is really all that we have to work with.

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