Impossible to Understand

“It is quite impossible to understand how we can be such strong individuals, so insistent on the rights and claims of every human soul. And yet at the same time countenance (and if we are English, even take quite calmly) this wholesale murder, which if it were applied to animals or birds or indeed anything except men would fill us with a sickness and repulsion greater than we could endure.”
The words belong to Vera Brittain as written in her classic Testament of Youth, first published in 1933 by Victor Gollancz Ltd and still available in well printed paperback edition by Virago Press. It is a remarkable book recounting the journey of a young female from the years just prior to the First World War, through that horrific conflict and beyond.
Vera Britain was born December 29, 1893. She was an outspoken feminist before the word had meaning, was a patriotic English woman who learned the hardest facts of life – and death – as a nurse in the overflowing casualty wards of that Great War to end wars. She died in March 1970 – an outspoken, lifelong, fervent pacifist converted to that cause by the never-ending procession of shattered minds and bodies from the bloody trenches of France and Gallipoli.
It was after reading in The (London) Times that by mid-1915 total casualties of WW1 had reached five million dead and seven million wounded that Ms. Brittain found it “impossible to understand….this wholesale murder which if it were applied to animals or birds…..would fill us with sickness and revulsion….”
A frightening truth and still, a hundred years after first written, a chilling one.
Read of a plan to cull invasive deer, rabbits or wolves and protesters will hit the streets waving placards; organizations will spring up to prevent the cull and capture wayward rabbits for shipment to a sanctuary for protection.
Read of a fire-fight where drones or smart bombs slay innocents along with an official enemy and we “countenance…even take quite calmly this wholesale murder…”. We are assured by our leaders that collateral damage is unavoidable and some of us, having been on the receiving end of less than smart bombs or shells, know it to be true: in war innocents have always died along with combatants.
But that shouldn’t make it calmly acceptable. Too many rage and fulminate against cruelty to every animal on planet earth – except the one called human. A century or so before Vera Brittain, Scottish poet Robbie Burns wrote “man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”. Another truth which, apparently, still remains “quite impossible to understand.”
If you haven’t yet organized your summer reading find a copy of Brittain’s Testament of Youth, read it – then ask yourself some questions. And provide honest answers.

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