“Harry Faversham! What the devil are you doing here?”
He is in a wretched enemy prison, in the Sudan in 1888, so overcrowded that one cannot budge without knocking someone else down. Outside the battle rages—bombs, shells, fire, smoke, noise, screams and blood. Kitchener’s army is closing in on the enemy Arabs and native tribesmen known as Fuzzy Wuzzies. A few days before, a mysterious, speechless Arab prisoner, with a symbolic scar branded into his forehead had slipped two British army captives a file to saw off their chains. As the battle reaches the prison and the captives break out, the anonymous angel slips between the two Brits, straightens his neck and speaks.
The shock for the soldiers is not the battle as much as the identity of their savior. They know Lieutenant Harry Faversham only as a despised coward. He has come to return some feathers.
The story of The Four Feathers was first told in 1902 by British novelist A. E. W. Mason. Later, in 1939, it became a splendid technicolor film by Alexander Korda. Both the novel and film open with an anniversary dinner celebrating memories of the Crimean War in the mansion of the retired General Faversham. Ancestral military portraits oversee the conversation, and the elderly men roar into the night with tales of when (to them) “War was war and men were men.” Fourteen-year-old Harry sits dumbfounded at the table as the veterans grumble that wars these days just “aren’t wars.”
They recall when men torn to pieces, legless or armless, fought on.
They recall when men torn to pieces, legless or armless, fought on. Above all, they say, “There is no place in England for a coward.” They end with a birthday toast to young, bewildered Harry: “May he be the bravest of the Favershams.”
Thirteen years later, in 1882, when his regiment is proudly dispatched to Egypt, Lieutenant Faversham—engaged to a retired general’s daughter, Ethne—resigns from the service. His fellow officers are enraged. Real men live to fight, but Harry has chosen to run. With his father dead, he prefers to marry and take care of their estate.
But, in Ethne’s presence, a little box is delivered to him containing three white feathers, symbols of cowardice. Attached to each is the calling card of a fellow officer, a friend. Ethne adds her own feather to Harry’s collection. How can she marry a coward?
Ashamed of his cowardice, Harry, disguised as a mute Egyptian, follows the army deep into the battlefields and risks his life to rescue his three colleagues and return the white feather to each. Harry finds his friend Capt. John Durrance, once his rival for Ethne, wandering lost in the desert, blinded by the sun. Harry returns Captain Durrance to his outfit without revealing his identity. When Durrance returns to England, Ethne, convinced that Harry is dead, agrees to marry him. However, Durrance discovers the white feather that Harry had surreptitiously slipped to him in the desert and realizes Harry is alive. He tells Ethne that he is going away to Germany for an eye operation to restore his sight.
The central theme of both the film and novel, proving one’s masculinity through war, particularly wars against colonial, dark-skinned armies, inspired similar films. In the British “Lives of the Bengal Lancers” (1935), the army general’s son is assigned to the regiment and is quickly captured by the enemy. The commander, determined that the son must “be a man,” refuses to rescue him because “[t]here is no room for sentimentality in the army.” When the son is captured by Arabs but escapes enemy prison with the help of fellow soldiers during an attack, he personally rushes into the fight and kills the enemy leader. At last, his father accepts him as a real man.
In the generations following the First World War (even though the horrors of the war inspired poetry and art that nourished pacifism), courage and death in battle kept hold of the public imagination. As a boy after World War II, I met men who regretted they were too young for World War I and too old for World War II. The major event of every generation’s lifetime was considered its war, and not to have fought in it was not to have lived.
The major event of every generation’s lifetime was considered its war, and not to have fought in it was not to have lived.
The recent book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, by Anthony Esolen, devotes a chapter to repudiating the sexual revolution by restoring manhood:
But the boy must be made into a man; nor is it true that, once he has established himself as a man, he need never worry about it again. Manhood is risky. It must be publicly affirmed, and you can lose that affirmation by cowardice or effeminacy. See the movie [The] Four Feathers. See the old Western Branded. Which cultures have recognized these truths? Every single one of them but ours.
Another recent book, Cowardice, by Chris Walsh,recalls the role of “The Four Feathers” in reaffirming a traditional definition of courage even as the public line between cowardice and heroism was gradually changing. When the film was made, evidence of the battle’s psychological damage to the ordinary soldier was becoming overwhelming.
A. C. Grayling’s recent study War concludes that the whole idea of war is too thoughtlessly accepted. Instead of being an occasional, bitter necessity, the idea has been institutionalized, romanticized and cosmeticized, as TV news does not show the blood and guts. Millions fixed on their TV screens “do not see the ghastly reality of what is happening.” He calls for the “therapy of truth—mangled bodies, blown apart children, blood running into gutters, people screaming in pain and terror.”
Some journalists are doing so. In “The Fighter,” by C. J. Chivers (The New York Times Magazine, 1/1/17), we meet Sam Siatta, who returns from Afghanistan a psychological wreck, stalked by memories of civilians his platoon had killed. At the age of 20, convinced our Constitution was “not a bunch of toilet paper,” he has a thirst for action and a sense of duty. Early in his service, without authorization, he kills a man because he “wanted to see what it feels like to kill someone.” Authorities fear he will fall into the habit of killing for pleasure. He kills six to 10 people a week. He senses an inner change, fearing his mind cannot be healed from “the horrors of war.” He considers suicide and drinks heavily for hours on end. Later, after returning home drunk, he accidentally invades the wrong home and injures a man in a fight. He is tried and sentenced to six years in prison. A good lawyer and his personal journal gained his release, and today he is home training to be a mixed-martial-arts fighter.
Whitney Terrill, a reporter embedded with troops in Iraq from 2006 to 2010, has inspired strong reactions to his new novel, The Good Lieutenant, which begins with an account of a battle where much goes wrong in an attempt to recover the body of a kidnapped member of a platoon. The plot moves back through a series of bad judgments, betrayals, deceptions and good intentions that have led to the current disaster. As the author explains his work in an interview: “Combat is a character–flattening experience. It robs people of themselves rather than make something of who they are.”
In The New York Times article “What We’re Fighting For,” published in February, Phil Klay, the author of the short-story collection Redeployment, remembers how the story of a Marine lieutenant who killed 24 men in one day had been used to inspire recruits. When he and his men were ambushed, Lt. Chontosh led an attack that cleared a trench filled with heavily armed Iraqi soldiers. The last casualty was an Iraqi pretending to be dead while fumbling with a grenade pin. Lt. Chontosh shot the man before he was able to pull the pin.
While this story exemplifies the heroic tales he heard as a young Marine, Klay attempts to circulate another type of heroic war story. He describes a medical team that cared for a wounded Iraqi sniper who had just killed a Marine. Klay later hears more about Lt. Chontosh and now wonders if maybe he should not have killed the last young man pretending to be dead. Our medics fight to save the lives of wounded enemies “because they’re American soldiers, because they swore an oath, because they have principles, because they have honor. And because without that, there’s nothing worth fighting for.” Perhaps on the horizon is an anniversary dinner where old soldiers share different stories about other kinds of courage when “men were men.”