It is perhaps an accident that the BBC reports about Berthold Brecht’s cause of death on Veterans Day. University of Manchester professor Stephen Parker has linked rheumatic fever during Brecht’s childhood to a lifelong heart weakness that supposedly led to the author’s premature demise in 1956.
It took me some time to take to Brecht. I always liked the Three Penny Opera but had trouble with Mother Courage. Growing up at the iron curtain, I wanted to support the state and the armed forces that protected us from communist tyranny.
Mother Courage depicts how war grinds up human beings regardless of their efforts. After the oldest son Eiliff gets impressed, he is so efficient in killing peasants and their cattle that the general acknowledges Eiliff’s service, only to execute the boy later for killing peasants and their cattle. Trying to save his regiment’s pay box, Swiss Cheese, the second son, gets tortured and killed by the victorious enemies who want the money.
His mother cannot acknowledge her son’s corpse for fear of sharing the same fate and has to witness the disposal of the body in a ditch. Mother Courage’s last child Kattie is shot to death by the invaders when she heroically warns the townsfolk of a nightly attack.
Even Mother Courage has kept her head down, by the end of the war, she is childless and destitute.
The lesson of Mother Courage is that no matter what you do and no matter what you choose, war will chew you up. War’s virtues, obedience, loyalty, and bravery, will not save you either. War will impoverish you, disfigure you, dishonor you, and kill you like Eiliff, Swiss Cheese, and Kattie. And if you survive, you will be destitute and deprived of your loved ones like Mother Courage.
As human agency has become meaningless, life becomes a matter of fate. War crushes everyone’s humanity.
Berthold Brecht wrote Mother Courage presumably in response of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. As an opponent of the regime, he had to go into exile, which would eventually take him to America. While his composer Kurt Weill was a great success, Brecht did not like it in the United States. In part, that must have been due to the trauma of exile. In part, neither Hollywood nor Broadway were be hospitable to an author Brecht’s caliber.
Eventually, Brecht returned to Germany where the communists wooed and celebrated him. He settled in the Soviet zone to do his part in building a new world according to Marxist ideals. When Soviet troops bloodily suppressed worker unrest on June 17, 1953, Brecht expressed solidarity with the communist regime while counseling better treatment of the workers.
The dictators, of course, only published a censored version of his letter that redacted Brecht’s argument in favor of German workers and emphasized his support for the regime, which “discredited Brecht with lasting effect.”
I can only imagine what Brecht must have felt like when his dream of a better world became a nightmare. It is tragic that a man whose plays embraced the brutality of life so courageously did not recognize the Stalinist illusion and put himself into a situation where he became a tool in the service of others.
But speaking of illusions, during the cold war, I did not muster the courage to acknowledge the brutal nature of war. Berthold Brecht was right. Rendering our choices futile, war is the end of humanity.
One of the eye opening moments for me was when I learned the British sailors who defeated Spain’s grand armada had to remain on board of the ships where almost all of them perished from disease and malnutrition while the rest of the country thanked God for the victory.
Although, veterans’ treatment today does not compare to anything like that, the politics of taking care of soldiers properly remains intractable and we still have not figured out how to provide for veterans properly and reliably.
It took us over 15 years after the end of the Vietnam War before we reliably provided treatment for veterans who suffered from agent orange poisoning. In the current war, we did not fully fund the Veterans Administration and soldiers’ health care until the 2007 budget, over five years into the war. And we refused comprehensive health care to members of the national guard and their families even if they served full time in Iraq or Afghanistan. And some of those fighters who did receive health care have had to house among rats and other vermin.
No matter how noble the cause, we use and abuse those who fight for it.
Patriots need to remember that when they contemplate matters of war and peace.
The best way to honor our veterans is to go to war as seldom as possible. Because once the war is underway, we do not get to choose anymore. Our troops will suffer and we don’t have the where with all to properly take care of them.