Vera Brittain, 'One Voice'

IssueDecember 2005 - January 2006
Review by Jenny Gaiawyn

One Voice is a compilation of two pieces by the renowned pacifist Vera Brittain, written during World War II. The first, Humiliation with Honour, is a reproduction of a series of letters from mother to son. The second, Seeds of Chaos, provides detailed and gruelling evidence of the human and cultural destruction stemming from the “obliteration bombing” policy adopted by the RAF in the 1940s. A foreword by her daughter, Shirley Williams, and introduction by Y Aleksandra Bennett give context to the two works.

Humiliation with Honour is more than a series of letters attempting to explain her unpopular pacifist position. It is a serious indictment of war, and gives a succinct, eloquent voice to those who suffer from it, be they conscientious objectors, pacifists, internees or refugees - those whom the mainstream media vilify and whom society reject and abuse. She reminds us of their humanity. Throughout the ten letters she uses poetic language to expose the harshness of war, and illustrates how the media and government of the time abused language to cover up the true effects of the war effort. She covers the moral arguments for pacifism, cataloguing the lost youth on both sides, the soldiers and civilians who die along with the survivors whose youth is disturbed by unimaginable fear and aggression.

As well as giving the humanitarian reasons for adopting pacifism, she challenges the accepted idea of individual people being inherently evil, instead arguing that they are a consequence, not the cause, of an evil world, and that to use their own tactics to beat them only lowers us to their level. Such a path, she argues, is not justifiable and does not create a better world.

Seeds of Chaos concerns the change in policy from precision to obliteration bombing and what the human and cultural costs of this were.

Interspersing her well-organised thoughts with direct quotes from those in power, the media and the church, she illustrates their hypocrisy - on the one hand condemning outright the bombings by the Nazis of places like Coventry and quite rightly calling the killing of civilians immoral, whilst using these same crimes to justify the obliteration bombing policy.

Power is given to her words as she is not only a coherent proponent of pacifism but she personally witnessed the horrors of war and suffered great losses herself. Brittain is not preaching or taking the moral high ground: she reminds us as pacifists and peace activists to be humble, and that holding strident support for pacifism does not negate our personal responsibility for failures within the society of which we are a part.

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