A War Poet In Palestine

by Dish Staff

Nina Martyris considers the enduring relevance of Siegfried Sassoon, who was stationed in Gaza briefly in 1918:

To read Sassoon on war is to read about Israel and Gaza today. After he left Palestine, he wrote a tightly crafted sonnet calledSiegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915) “Ancient History” on the fratricidal nature of war, told through the allegory of Cain and Abel. Ironically, that same story of brotherly murder provided the name of Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper, launched to search the West Bank for the three Israeli teenagers whose abduction and murder sparked the ongoing clash. In Sassoon’s scorching parable, Adam stands in for the cynical old politicians who watch their young kill one another. Described as “a brown old vulture in the rain,” Adam ponders over the character of his two sons. He admires Cain, who is “Hungry and fierce with deeds of huge desire,” and despises Abel, “soft and fair – / A lover with disaster in his face.” Adam even justifies Cain’s murdering his own brother because even murder is more tolerable than weakness: “Afraid to fight; was murder more disgrace?” In the end, murder only begets murder, and the vulture finds both his “lovely sons were dead.”

What makes this poem a moral grenade is its self-awareness. Sassoon knew that there were bits of Cain and Abel tussling inside him. At the start of the war, he had been a soldier filled with bloodlust, and made quite a reputation for himself for his revenge killings of Germans. But he had also sickened of the slaughter and campaigned for it to stop. In Sassoon’s case, Abel finally won, but the current war, with its far more ancient and complex metabolism, is inevitably stamped with the mark of Cain.

(Photo of Sassoon by George Charles Beresford via Wikimedia Commons)