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The Backwash of War
By Steve Krug (reviewer)
The Backwash of War
by Ellen La Motte, intro by Cynthia Wachtell
(The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.)
Years ago, during the second Gulf War, I went into an auto parts place. The fellow behind the counter was complaining to another customer about the coverage of the war. "I don't think they should be showing video of bodies of children being removed from the hospital that was bombed." I asked him if he felt that it wasn't one of our bombs that did it. He replied, "Oh, no, it was our bombs that did it but it reflects poorly on our war effort." I said, "So, you'd rather be lied to about the effects of the war so you feel better?" The look he gave me was pure hatred.
So it is and so it was when Ellen La Motte wrote of her WWI frontline nursing experiences. LaMotte pulled no punches describing the wounded soldiers and civilians, not fitting into the acceptable promoted narrative of the war. Does telling the truth "weaken our resolve" or "give aid and comfort to the enemy?" La Motte's critics certainly felt so. The book was immediately banned in England and France, and then a year later in the US, when we entered the war.
The book is in two parts, the first being written by Cynthia Wachtell, who provides a biography of La Motte and background info of the times in which The Backwash of War was written. The second part is the actual book.
La Motte's brutally honest depictions are presented as short stories and quickly demolish any idea of the "nobility of war." Her new style of writing greatly influenced other writers, and indeed, helped broaden the country's idea about free speech during wartime.
La Motte had to fight her families' wishes to become a nurse, went on to pioneer heading up public health services, worked on the suffragist cause both in the States and England, and volunteered as a nurse in the war. While in France she met her partner of 47 years, Emily Chadbourne. Seeing how poverty effectively countered most public health initiatives she was also a Socialist.
Truly she was a most amazing individual. Both the introduction and the book are well-written and, still very timely, as our leaders continue to tell us what it means to be patriotic. La Motte's stories help us push back against militarism and expose the horror of war.
Steve Krug is an equally proud VVAW member and a conscientious objector.