|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"The Demonstration of Courage"
Melissa Dorsch (Spring 2004)
During the Vietnam War, many Americans decided to choose conscientious objector status and serve the war effort in non-combative ways; others moved to Canada, leaving their families, their communities, and their nation because of strong political convictions. While some said these people were cowards and a disgrace to their families and their nation, others argued that those had just as much courage as the men on the front lines. Although moving to Canada was far less difficult than being sent to Vietnam, these Draft Dodgers proved they had courage to stand up for what they believed in. On pages eight and twenty-two of Pat Barker's Regeneration, two very highly esteemed awards are introduced, the Military Cross (MC) and the Victoria Cross (VC). The protagonist of this novel, Siegfried Sassoon, responds to his military honors by demonstrating two kinds of courage, one lauded by his government and popular opinion and one misunderstood and disdained by his society. Though Barker's novel presents these two types, she ultimately values courage of personal conviction. Not only does Sassoon exert this courage of personal conviction by writing a letter to his commanding officer, but also by throwing away one of the prestigious medals.
The Military Cross (MC) Award was instituted December 28, 1915. The award is presented to officers of the rank of Captain or below, for "distinguished and meritorious services in battle" (Brew). Most often meritorious services in battle means crossing enemy lines and running through enemy trenches in order to save men of the officer's battalion. This award is ranked as one of the highest honors possible for an officer to attain, and is "clearly for gallant and distinguished services in action" (Brew). During World War I, the names of the recipients of this award were published in the London Gazette, thus giving them public recognition and merit. 37,081 MC awards were given during World War I, and though it was an unusually large number of awards, it did not decrease the valor in receiving one (Duffy).
The Victoria Cross (VC) Award is the highest medal that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth soldiers. It was first instituted by the Royal Warrant in 1856, but was also used during the Crimean War, starting in 1854. The metal that this award is made out of typically comes from the guns captured from the enemies. In the Crimean War, metal from the Russian guns was used, and in World War I, metal from the Chinese guns was used. The metal for these medals has further significance, then, because it is not simply a metal fabricated from everyday materials, but is made with the valor and honor of the conquered enemies weapons. Throughout the years, the VC medal has continued to be one that is bestowed upon brave officers, and is today currently presented by the Monarch. This highly prestigious award can only be given to a person whose actions are "in the presence of the enemy" (Chapman), thus reserving it for the elite few who perform incredibly heroic acts during the war. Due to the tremendous amount of danger involved in one of these acts, the chances of surviving a VC act is one in ten (Chapman).
The first mention of the MC award, referred to on page eight of Barker's novel, is briefly stated as Dr. W.H.R.Rivers anticipates the arrival of his new patient, Siegfried Sassoon. Before this scene begins, however, Sassoon reveals that he has thrown the MC Award away, for no apparent reason. This vital piece of information becomes more surprising as Rivers reads the requirements necessary in order for the awarded to be presented: "for conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy's trenches" (Barker 8). This knowledge about Sassoon's actions creates more confusion for Rivers as he tries to understand his patient's state of mind. Before reading about Sassoon throwing the medal away, Rivers is prepared to treat him as a patient suffering from shell shock like many of his other patients. After reading the citation, his act becomes even more extraordinary, leaving Rivers less confident and more unsure of his patient's mental state. In Rivers' mind, Sassoon is very deserving of the medal, thinking to himself, "even the most extreme pacifist could hardly be ashamed of a medal awarded for saving life" (Barker 8). News of Sassoon's MC and his response complicates Rivers' attempts to categorize Sassoon and his motives.
In Barker's second reference to these awards, Rivers and Graves agree that Sassoon merits the VC for taking a "German trench single-handed" (Barker 22), valuing his courage. Rivers and Graves both know that Sassoon has already been decorated, due to his bravery and endurance in a raid against the Germans. They also see him as one who deserves greater honor than an award attained by so many people. Important character qualities demonstrated by Sassoon are shown here, through the thoughts of his doctor and friend. At the beginning of the novel, Rivers is unsure of Sassoon's mental state but in this passage, it seems evident that his analysis of Sassoon's mental state has evolved to the point where Rivers sees that he is not an average shell shock patient, but that he has a tremendous amount of courage and one who merits the highest award possible. In a similar way, Graves proves to have a lot of respect for and pride in his friend to the point where he would willingly bestow the VC award on him.
Barker's theme of courage as actions glorified by the government and heralded by public opinion is evident in the reactions people have towards Sassoon. A very simple and critical statement that Graves makes on page twenty-two demonstrates the degree to which people see Sassoon as a courageous man: "everybody [Graves] has spoken to who was there thinks he should’ve got the VC for that" (Barker 22). It is evident that Sassoon has developed an important degree of popularity as a general, especially towards his own men. Graves further explains this degree of popularity to Rivers: "Sassoon's the best platoon commander I've ever known. The men worship him -- if he wanted German heads on a platter they'd get them. And he loves them. Being separated from them would kill him" (Barker 21). This incredible devotion helps his men see that he is a fearless, courageous, and devoted officer, all traits that gain him high approval in the public's eye. Another example of how courage is glorified by popular opinion is seen with another character, Major Huntley. It is only after finding out that Sassoon received the medal that he begins to develop any respect for him. Upon learning of Sassoon's MC award, his reaction is simply, "Ah!" and then when Sassoon walks through the door, "Major Huntley positively beamed" (Barker 245-246). These two examples demonstrate how courageous acts in the battlefield are recognized and glorified by the government and individuals. These acts would generally be classified as ones that would be too dangerous for the troops to attempt, ones that involved crossing into enemy territory, and risking your own life for the lives of your men.
While courage in the battlefield is valued by some, courage of personal conviction is valued more by Barker. When Sassoon writes the letter to his commanding officer and throws away his MC award, he performs gestures that portray his courage of personal convictions. This courage, although less apparent than courage glorified by popular opinion, is the most important and developed one throughout the novel. Sassoon has given up many opportunities to advance in the military because of his beliefs. The sheer act of being willing to write and publish his thoughts on war demonstrates the fullness of his courage. In writing his declaration, he made the point that he was protesting against "the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed" (Barker 3). Sassoon's strong political view of unnecessary fighting led him to throw away one of the greatest honors possible. Even Rivers is amazed at this gesture and could not understand why one would be so ashamed of an award given for saving lives. Had Sassoon been awarded the VC, it is very possible that he would have disdained it as well. Sassoon's strong political convictions, coupled with his courage to stand for those principles, allow him to be seen as mentally unbalanced.
Dr. Rivers also demonstrates courage to stand up for personal convictions. Rivers believes in using a psychoanalytical treatment which simply lets the patient remember the atrocities of the war and experience emotions such as fear and tenderness, in order to overcome the state which he is currently in. However, in his society, this type of treatment is not acceptable, and it is viewed as hurtful to the patients. Rivers remarks, "the horrors [the patient] experienced, only partially repressed even by day, returned with redoubled force to haunt the nights, giving rise to that most characteristic symptom of war neurosis: the battle nightmare" (Barker 26) which Rivers used to help the patients overcome these horrific nightmares. Rivers himself sees the conflict between different ways of treating patients, but pursues his belief that his chosen method will cure the patients. He reflects, "in advising them to remember the traumatic events that had led to their being sent [to Craiglockhart], he was, in effect, inflicting pain, and doing so in pursuit of a treatment that he knew to be still largely experimental" (Barker 47). This use of a different treatment, one that was highly experimental, is also an example of how a person, in this case Dr. Rivers, demonstrates courage of personal convictions.
As seen throughout the novel, courage is not only demonstrated on the battlefield, but also in situations of everyday life. Although courage lauded by the government is highly valued and honorable, courage of personal convictions is of much greater significance in Barker's novel. Looking at the cultural elements of the MC and VC awards and how they were perceived by different individuals in Regeneration, two different types of courage are seen: one that was applauded by the government and public opinion, and one that was misunderstood by Sassoon's society. It takes personal conviction exhibited through courageous acts to live with yourself in the face of a worldview at odds with your own.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993.
Brew, Steve. "Gallantry Medals Awarded to 41 Squadron Pilots." World War One. 2003. Veterans Affairs of Canada. 20 Apr. 2004 <http://brew.clients.ch/Medals41.htm>.
Chapman, Mike. "Victoria Cross Facts." British Gallantry Awards. 1981. PE Abbott, JMA Tamplin. 19 Apr. 2004 <http://www.victoriacross.net/medal.asp>.
Duffy, Michael. "Military Cross." First World War.Com. 2000-2004. 19 Apr. 2004 <http://www.firstworldwar.com/atoz/mc.htm>.