22 July 2005

'To know' is not 'to believe' — nor 'to admit'.

With his “parallels” post (‘To support’ is not ‘to approve’) of yesterday's date, Jim Putnam provides a typically thought provoking extension from the basis of my own ‘To understand’ is not ‘to condone’ mutterings. I've already written a short reply in one direction; this is the longer one in another which I then promised.

Like Jim, I've often been struck by the cognitive dissonance which he mentions in his final paragraph: between what ‘the folks back home’ know from experience and what they do in practice – or even allow themselves to admit.

A friend of my grandfather told me, many years ago, of how he came back from France in the first world war with trench foot on the right, lice everywhere and their eggs in every seam of his clothing, maggots in his many wounds, part of his face eaten by rats, and his left leg missing below the knee. His parents and sister stared at him in shock when they visited him in hospital. His parents then left, declaring to the hospital staff that a mistake had been made: this was not their son. He didn't see them again until he was released from hospital months later. His sister stayed, swallowed her revulsion, and helped to care for him.

It was his sister's acceptance, he said, that helped him to come back from the dark place to which his mind had fled, and become human again. She waved the nurses away and picked out the maggots herself with tweezers. She refused to let the hospital make a routine precautionary amputation above the knee, pointing out that those very maggots had prevented gangrene. She took his infested clothes away and burnt them, then burnt her own just in case, before coming back to delouse him and dress him in a fresh uniform which she had bought with her own money. She ignored the screams and smells of the ward to visit him every day, staying all day, bringing fresh fruit for him and those in the other beds. The men around him, as badly wounded or worse, called her ‘Florence Nightingale’.

Later, when he was physically healed and psychologically coping if nothing else, he was not too surprised to find that his parents’ friends believed they had visited him constantly during his surgery and recuperation. He was told how lucky he was to have such support, how terrible it had been for them, and how he must be careful and considerate towards them as they recovered from their ordeal. He accepted this with a wryly amused cynicism which did not harm him.

He was more baffled, and more hurt, to find that his sister was the leading light in a group which campaigned ceaselessly against ‘lies’ and ‘rumours’ that British soldiers in France lived in less than perfect circumstances. She publicly denounced returning soldiers who talked of lice, illness, putrid food, rat borne disease, and nonexistent or mediæval medical care for the wounded. The British government and high command, she asserted constantly, would never permit such circumstances to prevail; the soldiers who said otherwise were Bolshevik agitators trying to undermine their country. When he reminded her that he, himself, had suffered from all of these things she told him that he was a single unfortunate victim who had somehow (as we would say these days) fallen through the net. He kept quiet; lacked the strength to cross the person who had brought him back from nightmare to life; he persuaded himself that she had to say what she did for the good of morale and, therefore, for the good of those still in the field.

When the war finally ended, though, he suggested to his sister than now it was time to tell the truth. To say that what happened to him was typical of what happened to men the trenches – and mustn't be allowed to happen again. She was furious; they argued; she never spoke to him again, for the rest of her life, and nor did his parents.

Things haven't changed much. People still want heroic myths they can live by, not uncomfortable truths they must grapple with. If what they want conflicts with what they know, then what they know must be the casualty. Jim's neighbours who buy body armour for their soldier sons whilst simultaneously supporting the administration which failed to provide it are one example. Nor does this apply only to warfare. Parents who cannot admit, whatever the cost in happiness, that their children might not want to be doctors, lawyers or Nobel Prize winners. Those of us whose hearts (and wallets) open without restraint in the face of a catastrophe affecting others, but close them again to the possibility of preventing such a catastrophe from happening again. People like me who, despite knowing many wonderful human beings in suits, still feel instinctive distrust of anyone who wears one ... and, of course, the reverse. ‘To know’ is not ‘to believe’, nor ‘to admit’.

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