With a Twist: Review of Discussion with Patricia Rae


PeaceQuest ‘s April Sunday Salon:

A Discussion with Dr. Patricia Rae about Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

At the Tett Centre on April 26, a small and enthusiastic group gathered to discuss Brittain’s memoir of the years from 1900 to 1925. Our discussion leader was Dr. Patricia Rae, an expert on literature of war at Queen’s University. Dr. Rae began by providing an overview of Vera Brittain’s life as a scholar, a feminist, and then war-time nurse. The suffering of injured allied and German soldiers and the impact of the deaths in W.W. 1 of her fiancé, two close male friends, and then her beloved brother convinced her to adopt pacifism.

Dr. Rae pointed out the many textual references in poems and songs to soldiers’ Christ-like martyrdom. We agreed however that Brittain does not accept this form of consolation.

This led to a wider discussion of the origin of the myths about the Great War. This war that was so bloody and so pointless could not be identified as such by the governments and the survivors. How can it be admitted to a mother that her sons died for nothing?

Contemporary critic Clifton Spargo suggests that an appropriate and useful response to grief is “ethical mourning”. By this he means focusing not just on the dead but on future victims, and working to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring. This is how Vera Brittain transformed her profound grief into action. “Ethical mourning” is also the stimulus for the peace movement as we work to prevent the implacable sorrow of future wars.

Brittain acknowledges that two impediments to peace work are nostalgia for the romance and adventure of war, and the fact that war does invite heroism.

Interesting questions to ponder are these: Can there be a moral equivalent to war? Can peace work provide the same appeal, especially to young men, by delivering travel, adventure, camaraderie and the opportunity for heroism?

At the time of the Spanish Civil War, many fellow pacifists abandoned this conviction and agreed that a war against fascism was an unfortunate necessity. Vera Brittain is inspiring because her pacifism did not waver, despite serious negative consequences such as public shaming, surveillance and a travel ban.

Brittain famously declared:

“I fear war more than fascism. You can’t use Satan to cast out Satan.”

Last month PeaceQuest’s Salon featured an excellent presentation on Art of WW I by Cameron Willis.

On May 31 at 4 p.m.at the Screening Room, PeaceQuest will show the renowned 1937 film about World War I called The Grand Illusion. Admission is $10, or $8 for members.   The film will be introduced by Dr. Peter Baxter of the Queen’s University Department of Film and Media; he will also lead a discussion after the film. This promises to be another excellent event!