zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Carl Prine: recommended reading

Carl Prine: recommended reading

[ by Charles Cameron — war, reading lists ]


Not exactly delighted by the reading list recently provided by the inbound Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Carl Prine at Line of Departure will be offering a “weekly discussion about how one might know one’s self” – Sun Tzu suggests that such knowledge is of value to the professional soldier — via texts other than the “middlebrow books of a recent vintage, pulp paperbacks” of the Army’s recommended readings.

Today he opened with an essay on the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, and quoted the final paragraph from Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man:

And here I was, with my knobkerrie in my hand, staring across at the enemy I’d never seen. Somewhere out of sight beyond the splintered tree-tops of Hidden Wood a bird had begun to sing. Without knowing why, I remembered that it was Easter Sunday. Standing in that dismal ditch, I could find no consolation in the thought that Christ was risen. I sploshed back to the dug-out to call the others up for “stand-to.”

I could only respond with a passage that I first encountered, likewise, on a blog – Pat Lang‘s Sic Semper Tyrannis – from Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen:

For 14 hours yesterday, I was at work-teaching Christ to lift his cross by the numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands mute before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.

And I think to myself how much more power there is in either one of those paragraphs, than in that quip about “no atheists in foxholes”.

* * *

It’s not a matter of one of those “God or no God” debates in which some clergyman might triumph over some atheist, or vice versa, on TV or at the town or village hall. It’s a matter of cultural riches, of having a reference base of image and story that’s strong enough to express the horrors of Passchendaele or the Marne in a way that speaks to the hearts of those who were not there — and of those who will find themselves there, all too really, in other times and other lands.

It’s about narrative deep enough to go with you to Golgotha and back. It’s about the words, and about the furnace.

Prine himself puts it like this:

I care only of your soul and how it might be fired in the smithy of this blog and then hammered by your experiences in the coming years.

Our culture is the smithy.

26 Responses to “Carl Prine: recommended reading”

  1. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    My head is swimming after an exhausting day of writing…but I had to weigh in on the remark about "cultural riches"—the Armstrong book on civilization, perhaps unwittingly, made culture and civilization synonymous. I’m writing on organizational culture for my book. I found an interesting quote from JM Powis Smith in his obscure book The Origin and History of Hebrew Law where he was talking about Moses’ purpose with The Decalogue:
    “Thus the varying peoples were brought closer together and the Babylonian Empire set upon a much firmer foundation (speaking of the Code of Hammurabi). The case was very much the same with Moses and his Hebrew clans.”—-here’s the quote: “The great need was co-operation and mutual understanding. Hence Moses lays down certain simple, elemental, and fundamental principles for the guidance and control of his people.” Smith goes on to say: “No community, however small, can hold together and perpetuate itself that does not have a certain minimum of custom or law controlling the members of the community in their relations one with another…The laws of nomadic groups among the Semite even today are simple and elemental, lacking in complexity and finesse which so frequently characterize the laws of civilized nations…”
    Culture is relationships, and the health of any culture—even meta-culture depends on how we treat each other…the good news is on many fronts we’re doing just fine—but the London riots reveal a tear in the fabric…

  2. Michael Roinson Says:

    Hi Charles, there is another poem familiar to us both:

    Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
    The name, because one afternoon
    Of heat the express-train drew up there
    Unwontedly. It was late June.


    The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
    No one left and no one came
    On the bare platform. What I saw
    Was Adlestrop—only the name


    And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
    And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
    No whit less still and lonely fair
    Than the high cloudlets in the sky.


    And for that minute a blackbird sang
    Close by, and round him, mistier,
    Farther and farther, all the birds
    Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire



    "Adlestrop," written 7-9th June 1915.

    In 1915 at the age of 37 Edward Thomas enlisted and worked as a map-reading instructor. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Artillery, November 1916, he volunteered for service overseas. On the 9th April 1917 Thomas was killed at a forward observation post whilst directing fire.


    Reproductions of his, with the Mss of many others are online at First WW Poetry Digital Archive. The Mss of the work he wrote before he went to France, by choice, are here.

  3. zen Says:

    Carl Prine wrote:
    "Let me be blunt.  A late Baby Boomer generation of politicians, bankers, reporters and generals has formed into a cancer inside this democracy, and their tumorous leadership won’t be kind to your future."
    It’s a rare event, but I am deeply envious – wish I had written that.

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    I read Carl’s line, and read your quote above and I agree with you; he nailed it.
    The best we can do is marginalize/contain their "tumorous leadership."

  5. Lexington Green Says:

    There is a problem with trying to understand World War I based on the writing of two highly sensitive poets.  They were wildly atypical men.  Oddly, to understand the war as the people who were in it understood it you need to read more widely, and you need to read things that lack literary merit, or that lack the Owen/Sassoon/Graves level of literary merit.  

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Lex:
    I agree, of course: it takes more than a fistful of officer-poets to understand a war.  It’s interesting, however — and this is what I was getting at — that both Owen and Sassoon (and Sassoon in particular) can refer to the Christian passion-narrative in ways which gives their accounts a depth that might otherwise be lacking.
    I suppose I should find myself a copy of In Parenthesis.

  7. Lexington Green Says:

    The religious references are arresting, in a literary way.  However, the author, Mr. Prine suggests that the cynicism of Sassoon, or the weltschmerz of Owen, are somehow reflective of some ultimate truth, or that they depict what most people who were in the war felt about it.  The historical record demonstrates otherwise.  It took a lot of reeducation to convince the British people that their victory over aggression and tyranny in World War I was "really" pointless.  It does not appear that the veterans themselves, or large majorities of them, ever believed the revisionist version of the war.    

  8. seydlitz89 Says:


    You ought to expand that last comment into a post . . .

  9. Lexington Green Says:

    Seydlitz, I would like to.  It actually merits an entire book.  It would be, to an extent, the anti-Paul Fussell.  Fussell is good, but he is misleading, and wrote a book that appealed to post-Vietnam era Americans.  And there was a lot going on in Britain post-WWI:  Soviet propaganda, the Bloomsbury group, the British anti-imperialist Left, all of them debunking the war effort and the sacrifice and the victory won by their country and their empire and their army.  It is a very rich and absurdly unmined vein.  In fact, World War I, for all its importance, is in dire need of more examination in many of its aspects.  I have had a few post on ChicagoBoyz over the years on some of these themes, which may be of interest.

  10. Lexington Green Says:

    I give up.  I cannot master the ZP comment feature.  

  11. zen Says:

    It isn’t the comment feature, in this instance it was the Akismet spam filter holding things up

  12. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ve "adjusted" your post, Lex, and removed a dupe.

  13. Joseph Fouche Says:

    The past, always in motion it is. There’s a 1898 vintage artillery piece in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried that was engraved and dedicated to seven local men from our then small community who died "in the World War" during the 1920s. In the 1930s, the Nye Commission convinced most Americans that our participation in WWI was a bit of trickery to preserve the profit margins of the House of Morgan. After Pearl Harbor, WWI became a fable whose moral was that American participation in the League of Nations would have prevented WWII but isolationism smothered Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s beautiful dream in its cradle. The conventional wisdom I was raised on was that Henry Cabot Lodge’s confident strides across the Senate floor were the first baby steps of fascism and genocide as they slouched towards Dachau to be born. Now it’s in motion again.
    The role of British poets of WWI in America is always curious since our opportunistic intervention in that war as an offshore balancer was short, sharp, and victorious when compared to every other major combatant in that war except for Japan. The vogue for Sassoon, Owen, and friends is a tiresome continuation of the tedious Boomer conflict over Vietnam through other, more alliterative means. Why we need British war poets, ripped context-free from a foreign context, when we already had better works like "The Red Badge of Courage" that deal with analogous themes from our own history is beyond me.

  14. zen Says:

    ".. In the 1930s, the Nye Commission convinced most Americans that our participation in WWI was a bit of trickery to preserve the profit margins of the House of Morgan"

    The most influential Senate Committee staffer during the hearings and the workhorse who was the lead author of the Nye Committee report was….Alger Hiss.
  15. Lexington Green Says:

    "…  was….Alger Hiss."  The role of communist subversion, including the Willi Münzenberg network, in the rise of interwar pacifism, is one of many buried strands of 20th Century history.  My only, minor disagreement with Citizen Fouche is this:  Owen, Sassoon, et al. really were brilliant literary figures.  That is why they are so effective, and why it is possible for a vogue for them to continue.  But the it is hard enough to derive meaningful political lessons from prose, let along poetry.  I think they are used by pacifists both because of their literary power and because British artistic products still have a certain cachet in the USA, a sort of Masterpiece Theatre Effect, appealing to college educated middle class people who make up the ground troops of pacifism and leftism generally.  

  16. Joseph Fouche Says:

    It’s curious to see the American tide flow the other way and drown the British. Yesterday I heard an extract from a speech given by the mayor of the English town near the airbase where the bodies of slain British servicemen had been flown in from Afghanistan and Iraq to mark the closure of the airbase. He quoted Lincoln’s line from the Gettysburg Address about "the last full measure of devotion", something that might have surprised Lincoln’s contemporaries in the British government like Henry Temple, John Russell, or William Gladstone. 
    Or perhaps it wouldn’t. Lincoln is a more significant figure in British history than Temple, Russell, or Gladstone and becomes more so with each passing moment.

  17. seydlitz89 Says:

    More significant than Gladstone . . . let me take a moment to process that . . . or not.

    As to the above, no mention of Robert Graves, whose mother was a von Ranke, he being a good friend of Sassoon (until Goodbye to All That) and T.E. Lawrence .  .  . which of course avoids the reality which was/is not a question of good versus evil, or us versus them, but rather of mutual, collective, cultural, suicide.  

    A lot went down with the old order back in 1914-18, and so much of what inspired those to "go over the top" was needlessly wasted, and for what exactly?  An old whore all gone in the teeth?  Depends on your definition of "whore".

    We see it all around us today imo, and complain about it, constantly and cluelessly . . . what ever happened to the old values, where did they go? 

    Where indeed . . .

    Even today we repeat the same old lies, having learnt nothing . . . but then why should we, where is it our interest in doing so?     

  18. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Seydlitz:
    Thanks for the Graves nudge — although Lex mentioned Graves at response #5 — from a literary perspective I’d say he’s the most impressive of the bunch.  And Gladstone — yes, I wondered about that, too. 
    Hoping to say more later in the day — not at all convinced I’ll manage to, though.

  19. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ve been fascinated to see how the comments on this post took up related topics, but not the one I was trying to make, which was about "cultural riches, of having a reference base of image and story that’s strong enough to express the horrors of Passchendaele or the Marne in a way that speaks to the hearts of those who were not there".
    We had a couple of comments on Prine‘s article, and then Lex opened the topic of "trying to understand World War I based on the writing of two highly sensitive poets."  That seems to have been the conversation we were wanting to have, and it has produced some decent conversation, as is happily the rule around here.  
    Most recently, we’ve had M. Fouche writing that the "role of British poets of WWI in America is always curious" and speaking of the "vogue for Sassoon, Owen, and friends" – whom he compares, unfavorably, with a work in a very different medium indeed (comparing scribbled, edited, printed poem with written, blocked, lit, acted, filmed, edited, screened movie) The Red Badge of Courage.
    I’ve seen Restrepo, and I don’t think it compares with a sonnet (or a sonata) — these are such different devices, reaching mind and heart by differing means.
    But a "vogue for Sassoon, Owen, and friends"? Lex agrees: "Owen, Sassoon, et al. really were brilliant literary figures.  That is why they are so effective, and why it is possible for a vogue for them to continue." Wow — I’d love to see a vogue for poetry, but I guess this one’s limited to two or three specific anti-war poems that benefit, as Lex notes, from the quaint fact that "British artistic products still have a certain cachet in the USA, a sort of Masterpiece Theatre Effect".  
    [ I have to wryly acknowledge that one, since my own still somewhat-English accent and artistic pretensions have served me well over here… ]
    Still: while it may well be the case that "it is hard enough to derive meaningful political lessons from prose, let alone poetry" – that isn’t what poetry is after, and what I’ve been focusing on here has been the power of a common "mythic culture" (in this case, Christianity) of authentic depth and reach, in seeing a people through exceptionally hard times.
    A commenter at Chicago Boyz picked up on this right away, and commented on the way in which Jewish religious culture is strengthening the IDF – and I’d think it might have powerful resonance for Lex’s work on the Anglosphere, too – not in terms of pacifism or leftism, but of what the Anglospheric poet Eliot (almost) terms "shoring up the ruins"…

  20. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    The comments on this thread have been fascinating and educating. I’ve little depth in WWI save a few narrative naval histories.
    One book that has not crept into the discussion is the gem written by Frederick Manning, The Middle Parts of Fortune (also titled, Her Privates We). This remains the most moving book on war that I’ve read and it was recommended to me by a combat Marine who served four combat tours in Vietnam as an Enlisted man, got his commission and retired as a full-bird Colonel—he said Manning captured the insanity of war better than anyone he’d read. By my reading he was right. Manning’s book was so graphic it was banned in England for some time.
    Also, Peter Pouncey wrote Rules for Old Men Waiting, which was a book with three smaller narratives, that included service in trench warfare. Both books focus on the horrors of the trenches and the insanity of the "tactics." I did not read either as propaganda, but rather sad statements on a war where technology was light years ahead strategy and tactics.
    I’m adding these two titles, as I don’t believe either guy had an axe to grind, just wanted to tell their stories.

  21. Charles Cameron Says:

    My grandfather:


    I haven’t seen a copy in many years. The book contains “letters sent by Darlington to his family during the five months (May-Sept) he spent as Commanding Officer of 1/5 Bn Manchester Regt on the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War One, describing in detail living conditions and his personal experience of operations.”
    I don’t think it’s on anyone’s list — but now that I am becoming more militarily and historically conscious, I’d like to find me a copy..

  22. zen Says:

    Charles, . http://www.kcl.ac.uk/lhcma/cats/darlington/da50-0.htm

  23. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles, abe.com has a copy—sent you the link.

  24. Charles Cameron Says:

    Wrong book, Scott. : )
    My grandfather’s would be Sir Henry Darlington, Letters from Helles, Longmans, 1936.  Your link is to a Peter Liddle title, Men of Gallipoli: the Dardanelles and Gallipoli Experience Aug. 1914-Jan. 1916, so there’s a good chance HCD would be mentioned…

  25. Lexington Green Says:

    "I’d love to see a vogue for poetry" — the ongoing vogue I mean is trotting out these poets as an ideological WMD in any debate about warfare.  Pacifists can always bring in the emotional power of these poets and use that to, supposedly, rebut any use of force for any reason at any time against anybody, since, after all "war and the pity of war" are so awful.  Also, part of the ongoing vogue, is that these poets are assigned reading in schools, which teach about World War I by citing these poets, to show the futility of all war, with World War I being the — supposedly — supreme example of pointless death, wasted youth, greedy exploitation and stupid generals and callous politicians.  

  26. seydlitz89 Says:


    Thanks for sharing with us the information on your grandfather.  Very interesting.

Switch to our mobile site