What happens when a nerve is severed? It may regenerate, grow back, slowly and imperfectly but somewhat functional. Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration is based on the experiences of solders suffering what was then called Shell Shock in the trenches of World War I.
Barker’s book is the first of a trilogy which also includes The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. Having come to Regeneration directly from Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, I need to commit myself to finishing the series.
These books are wonderful and terrible, in the original senses of inciting wonder and terror. You think your life is under control. In August you enlist in a war which the professionals say will be over by Christmas — and spend four years in the trenches watching your men be blown apart. They are your men because you are an officer (and perhaps a gentleman) and responsible for their welfare.
When personal collapse comes, they send you home for rehabilitation. The officers receive rest and a 1916 version of the talking cure at a mental hospital like the one at Craiglockhart where Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred met when both were invalided home. The other ranks get much less benign treatment; their psychosomatic symptoms are typically treated with electric shock.
There are many important themes in the book including class distinctions and the importance of poetry, but the most important one is a moral issue: for what are these men being regenerated? The answer is clear: to go back to France and fight again.
….’I'd’ve thought there was a case for letting him be.’
‘No, there’s no case,’ Rivers said. ‘He’s a mentally and physically healthy man. It’s his duty to go back, and it’s my duty to see he does.’
The means may vary, but the end is always the same, and this despite the fact that all of them — the doctor Rivers and the officers Graves and Owen and Sassoon — know that the war is a mistake for which a generation is being sacrificed. In their code, it would just not do to quit. Graves says to Sassoon,
I believe in keeping my word. You agreed to serve, Siegfried. Nobody’s asking you to change your opinions, or even to keep quiet about them, but you agreed to serve, and if you want the response of the kind of people you’re trying to influence — the Bobbies and the Tommies — you’ve got to be seen to keep your word. They won’t understand if you turn around in the middle of the war and say “I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind.” To them, that’s just bad form. They’ll say you’re not behaving like a gentleman — and that’s the worst thing they can say about anybody.’
I take it that it is more important to avoid bad form than to go out to kill and be killed. We had hot words about this issue in our Ex Libris discussion, with my opponent pointing out the obligations of citizenship: you benefit from the country so you must be willing to serve the country. Sounds like Viet Nam to me. When is it your obligation as a citizen to refuse to participate in wrong actions? Graves and Sassoon come down on different sides of that question and even Rivers, who was so sure at first what was right to do, comes to have doubts.