Pain through the prism of war

From tales of stoic acceptance to frenzies of screaming, the way soldiers have reported their suffering has been transformed over the past 150 years, according to Joanna Bourke...

A nurse on the French Eastern border treats a wounded soldier during the First World War. (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When an elderly Carlos Paton Blacker sat down to write his war memoir, he had one aim in mind: “Nobody should be allowed to forget” the physical pain men suffered, he told his son. He wanted his readers to know what it was like to lie wounded in a hospital marquee at Beaumetz-lès-Cambrai during the First World War. The marquee was like “a torture chamber”, he recalled, “in which spasms of pain were being inflicted by invisible tormentors”. He described how one patient emitted a “howl of pain as he tried to move a limb”, only to have his screams echoed by another tortured patient and “then another until it seemed that all the prostrate men on the packed stretchers were wailing in unison”.

Blacker recognised one important fact: in war, pain is a weapon. It is purposefully inflicted. It is staged as a public spectacle. It may begin as an acute injury, but its chronic manifestations can last decades. Wounded servicemen and women could not casually shrug off their misfortune; young lives could not simply be resumed. The war-afflicted body in pain was a life sentence.

As many people have observed, pain is notoriously difficult to convey to other people. So what literary tropes did memoirists employ when writing about this sensation? It was crucial that they “got it right”, not only because they wanted to be faithful to their own experiences but also because pain was regarded as the ultimate litmus test. Responses to wartime injuries were a reflection not only on the character of the harmed person, but also his or her comrades. It could even be used as evidence of national fortitude. It foretold eventual victory or defeat.

There are a number of themes that emerge time and again in the way British and American combatants, medical officers and nurses wrote about wartime pain in their memoirs from the American Civil War to the present. First, memoirists remarked about the lack of correlation between the severity of their wound and the acuteness of their pain. Injuries that would have occasioned agony in normal circumstances felt as insignificant as being hit with a pebble. For example, during the First World War, ambulance driver G Ripley Cutler claimed that he had not realised that he was seriously wounded until he observed “a few drops of blood on my pants and a small tear in the cloth of the right leg”. As he commented: “So I knew I must have been hit, although I didn’t feel the slightest sensation of pain.”

The second theme involved noting that even agonising lesions might be welcomed because they meant an escape from further risk. “Stop groaning: Poor fellow! It is over,” one combatant told another wounded soldier during the American Civil War. Similarly, during the Second World War, a wounded man mused aloud that “Maybe the war is over for me,” while, during the Korean War, the “walking wounded” were described as feeling a “stunned gratitude that they had escaped the dozens of ways to die”.

The final consistent theme is the insistence that there is a hierarchy of sensation. Memoirists regularly debated whether some men – often rough, outdoor men, as opposed to educated, urban ones – were more resilient in their ability to bear pain. This great chain of feeling routinely denigrated enemy soldiers, especially if they were not members of the “white races”. Thus, Woods Hutchinson, the author of The Doctor in War (1918), claimed that “none have borne the ghastly horrors of shell and mine and poison-gas so well as the highly civilised white races”.

However, the way pain has been narrated in war memoirs has also undergone important shifts. These can be summarised under two broad headings: the move from romantic nationalism to nihilistic individualism and the corresponding journey from detached to expressive emotional effect.

Memoirs emerging out of the American Civil War and the First World War were much more likely than later ones to celebrate pain as a sacrifice for a higher cause or entity. This was especially strong in memoirs drawing on wounding experiences during the American Civil War. For example, the author of The Iron Hearted Regiment (1865) alleged that a “brave and noble-hearted soldier of the 3rd Rhode Island regiment” whose face had been “mashed to a sickening jelly” told him that his only regret was that he could “fight no more for the Union”. The wounded soldier was “racked with terrible pain and suffering” but he believed that it was “glorious to be tortured for the sacred cause of freedom”. Such accounts epitomise memorialisation as propaganda.

Similarly, according to M Bale’s account of the First World War, the Christian faith sustained a young officer when he was required to undergo an amputation without the use of any anaesthetic on the altar of a bombed church. “Not a murmur escaped him,” leading witnesses to whisper “words of admiration for the splendid courage displayed”. The officer explained his fortitude by raising “a trembling hand and pointed to the crucifix that remained above the altar unshattered by the shell of the enemy… No explanation other than this was needed.” Like the sufferings of Christ, pain was redemptive.

Patriotic and devout nationalism was linked with a particular kind of stylistic detachment. There are some exceptions, but the extent to which these earlier memoirists used understatement when writing about pain is striking. Brusque forbearance was required; men had to prove to others that they could mask their feelings.

A particularly evocative example of this is James Robb Church’s 1918 memoir from the First World War. He described the physical pain experienced by “Robert Deviennes, of the 417th Infantry, [who] grips the sides of his white iron bed and the dark eyes close and the drooping corners of his mouth come up to a straight, set line and the olive color of his face goes a little gray while drops of sweat stand out like tears from a tortured system. But Robert Deviennes, of the 417th Infantry, does not whimper, for he is not a child, but a soldier of France, and he knows with the knowledge of his 19 years how to bear his cross like a soldier.” Church’s description of this soldier’s suffering contained themes that appeared time and again in early 20th-century pain-narratives. Deviennes was suffering in similar ways to that of Christ. He was surrendering his body for a greater good and his sacrifice would be rewarded in the Next Life. He embodied all that was manly about the Allied struggle. Deviennes’ anguish was “pain patiently borne… suffering endured without a cry”.

This ideal even affected those men who failed in their attempts to adhere to manly detachment from bodily pain. This was what First World War nurse Mary Borden was alluding to in her memoir based on her experiences in a field hospital close to the frontlines. She observed that when men were having their wounds dressed they occasionally did “cry out” but they “usually apologised for the annoyance of their agony”.

After the Second World War, romantic, nationalistic and stoical statements fell out of favour. Instead, memoirists became much more nihilistic and individualistic. Nationalist statements were resolutely jettisoned. Impious ejaculations replaced pious appeals. Pain was stripped of religious meaning and suffering was no longer conceived of as a step towards a better afterlife. This cannot be solely ascribed to secularisation or post-First World War disillusionment. After all, men and women marched patriotically into battle in later conflicts. Rather, post-1930s British and American societies had witnessed a new kind of individualism that placed responsibility for suffering much more on the person-in-pain. This individualism also claimed that a person’s response to pain revealed his true mettle, irrespective of the props of nation, religion and ideology.

One consequence of this shift was the introduction of extremely emotional, graphic accounts of pain. Particularly from the conflict in Korea onwards, memoirists began inserting highly expressive, individualised evocations of pain in their reminiscences. They set out to inscribe their pain into their texts. Gerald Kingsland’s Korean War memoir, for instance, lingered on an occasion when he eavesdropped on a fellow patient describing how he came to be wounded. “God,” the soldier swore, being shelled “was awful!” – especially when a shell fragment hit a sleeping comrade. This fellow-soldier “jumped up and screamed and tried to run – but he didn’t have any feet! I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I can’t imagine the agony he must have been in. He took a few steps, like someone on stilts, and screamed louder than ever. He fell over and lay there screaming until he blacked out… And all because of these yellow, stinking little bastards and their rat-infested country that wants blowing to hell.”

Such evocations of horror became a staple of the Vietnam memoir industry. A famous example occurs at the start of Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976) where he described the immediate aftermath of his own severe wounding. In his words, men were “screaming all around me. ‘Oh God get me out of here!’ ‘Please help!’ they scream… There is a man without any legs screaming in pain, moaning like a little baby. He is bleeding terribly from the stumps that were once his legs, thrashing his arms wildly about his chest, in a semiconscious daze.”

Rather than such displays of agony eliciting sympathy, they incited rage. Kovic began cursing at the limbless man: “‘My wound is much worse than yours!’ I scream. ‘You’re lucky,’ I shout, staring him in the eyes. ‘I can feel nothing from my chest down. You at least still have part of your legs. Shut up!’ I scream again. ‘Shut the fuck up, you god-damned baby!’”

These kinds of explosive reactions to pain – frenzies of screaming and blaspheming – were even allowed in front of nurses, unlike in earlier memoirs. In these latter memoirs, physical suffering remained a test of manliness, but the tone was defiant and aggressive rather than stoic or resigned. Pain was something that incited fury and aggression; it was an excuse for retributive violence. In these late 20th-century accounts, combatants worked within a hyper-masculine environment that celebrated aggression in the face of bodily wounding.

It’s a trend that has been exaggerated in 21st‑century memoirs, where wounded men are expected to position themselves within a cinematic and video-gaming culture. Their post-wounding aggression is hyperrealist.

Men’s ability to continue fighting despite appalling wounds that would incapacitate most people is striking. A representative example of these accounts is House to House: An Epic Memoir of War (2007) authored by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia with the help of John R Bruning. According to Bellavia, when he was wounded in Fallujah, Iraq, the “pain drives [him] into a fury”. Despite having a broken jaw and wounds in multiple places, Bellavia strangled and bit his enemy before attempting to gore out his eyes. At this point, the “insurgent” reciprocated by biting into his crotch, so that Bellavia experienced “searing agony, pain I never knew I could survive rakes across my nervous system… I’m almost paralyzed with the pain. It blasts every nerve, every sinew.” The result? Even more explosive aggression: “I become a madman.” He stabbed his enemy repeatedly while his victim “wails with terror and pain”.

After finally killing him (and another “insurgent”), Bellavia claimed that he sat down and “pull[ed] out a Marlboro Red… What a fucking day.” Nothing could be further away from Church’s First World War portrayal of Robert Deviennes, who stoically “grips the sides of his white iron bed” and who “knows with the knowledge of his 19 years how to bear his cross like a soldier”.

Of course, there were subtle variations in the chronology I have sketched out here. Some of these shifts remain consistent in line with the war being narrated (that is, there are clear differences based on whether the wounding occurred in 1917 or 2007), while others changed over time in accordance to the date of publication (that is, a 1917 memoir that was published in 2007 might include 21st-century themes). Thus, Carlos Paton Blacker (the First World War soldier with whom I began this article) was writing about his sufferings when he was elderly. His account mirrored descriptions of pain typical of the late 20th century. Since the war, Blacker had trained as a psychiatrist and had been active in progressive political movements. As his son admitted, the aim of writing his memoir was to tell the world that “the whole war was a hideous mistake which should never have happened”.

It also mattered who published the memoir: those released by the pacifist Swarthmore Press differ significantly from those published by McFarland and Co or Pen and Sword.

In addition, once readers of memoirs came to expect gruesome details, the author or their editors might even apologise for those that lacked them. In 2010, Terry Crowdy edited Donald Dean’s chronicle of being a volunteer during the First World War. In his preface, he ruefully noted that Dean possessed a “factual style”, forcing readers to “reread and use imagination to understand what it was really like, to know that of the 22 who were commissioned in his group into the end of the terrible Somme offensive, only he and one other were still alive after eight weeks”. Twenty-first century imaginations had to add the lurid incidents that early 20th-century memorial traditions were reticent to describe.

Exploring the way physical suffering is recited in war memoirs uncovers a great deal about the way pain is memorialised in British and American societies. The passive resignation of accounts of the American Civil War and the First World War was resolutely jettisoned by the time of the conflict in Vietnam for a lurid evocation of the body dismembered and the aggressive survival of an American infantryman. There was little stoicism in these later accounts (although occasionally there was resigned endurance); pain was presented as an excuse for extreme cruelty. Suffering or witnessing suffering in war was what gave these memoirs their power: it made the memoirists marketable, authentic and masculine. These accounts were narratives of trials by ordeal.

In the field of battle, men proved themselves in ways that were universal, spanning all of male struggle from the beginnings of time to modern civilisation. For survivors, the pain of wartime wounding was a test that had to be endured in culturally appropriate ways. The manner in which these responses were subsequently narrated communicated the meaning of war and the suffering body. Through pain – received and inflicted – the serviceman was transformed from civilian to warrior.

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Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London.