Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

"My Boy Jack"

I don't very often write about television, partly because I watch so little of it. However, I must remark upon the deep feelings sparked in me by last night's "My Boy Jack," on Masterpiece Classic, the current incarnation of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre. The program, written by David Haig, deals with the Kipling family in 1914 from before the declaration of war with Germany, into 1915, and is distinguished by very fine performances by all the principals.

Rudyard Kipling was at that time Britain's most reknowned literary figure, having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English-language writer to be so honored since the award's inception in 1901, and still the youngest person to win a Nobel for Literature. During his career, he was offered the position of Poet Laureate and a knighthood, both of which he declined.

Kipling was a passionate supporter of the British Empire and believed strongly in its civilising influence. Therefore, he was very alarmed by the threat of war with Germany and the effect it might have on British influence in the world, especially given what he and others (correctly) viewed as a lamentable state of unpreparedness in the Army.

As the story opens, we see Kipling (David Haig) embarking on a series of lectures/speeches intended to alert the populace of the potential for war including a lurid imagining of the effects of a successful German invasion, and urging the young men of Britain to enlist. No hypocrite, he also does everything in his power to try to help his son John (known as "Jack", played by Daniel Radcliffe), join the service, although Jack is turned down by first the Navy and then the Army due to his extremely poor vision. Once war is actually declared, Kipling is able to pull strings with people including the retired Field Marshal Lord Roberts and obtains Jack a commission in the Irish Guards.

While Jack goes through cadet training and then in turn training his new platoon, Rudyard works with what we would call the 'public relations' arm of the War Office, using his literary skills to put palatable polish for the Home Front on the apalling casualty figures. (In the first battle mentioned, the British lost more than 4,000 killed: bad enough, but they did not then know that catastrophes such as the Somme, where casualties would be almost fifteen times greater in a single day, lay in the future.)

The future also gave us the statistic that average life expectancy on the battlefield for junior officers such as Jack Kipling would turn out to be ten minutes. Therefore, the viewer is not surprised when Jack is reported missing in the aftermath of his first, much anticipated, battle, the day after his eighteenth birthday. The real drama of the story kicks in then as Kipling, his wife Caroline (Kim Cattrall) and daughter Elsie (Carey Mulligan) deal with the agony of not knowing whether Jack is alive or dead. During the second half of the show the painful question comes to the fore: did Kipling do wrong in helping his son go into the Army, even though there was no doubt that that was what Jack wanted to do?

This may be where I part company with the story: Kipling and his wife reconcile, and in real life, Kipling shifted his involvement with the war office to the Imperial War Graves Commission, responsible for memorials to the dead. We see Kipling comforting an officer whose young son had died suddenly reciting his poem, "My Boy Jack."

“HAVE you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Was it wrong for Kipling to send his son to war? Individually, I suppose not. Institutionally, I have come to believe so. England was in no real danger of being invaded by Germany, and, although there may have been serious losses of empire had the Germans been in a position to force an armistice, the nation was in no real danger.

I have come to the conclusion that, even if the country's loyal sons and daughters are willing, nay, even eager as Jack was, to put themselves in harm's way at their country's call, it is wicked, despicably evil, and morally rotten to accept that sacrifice, no matter how nobly or freely given. There may be times when a nation really is in peril, and the sacrifice may truly be necessary, but a necessary evil is still an evil, and the mere fact of necessity does not redeem it.

Perhaps that was a conclusion that Kipling came to suspect as well, since, among others more elegaic, we find these lines in his "Epitaphs of the War"


If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.


I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

What a great and terrible pity it is that in the past century we have learned no better.
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