This article examines the categories of victim and perpetrator testimony in relation to the writing contained in the Salamander Oasis Trust archive in the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. In Dimensions of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel famously commented that the Holocaust produced the new literary genre of testimony. Although critics — such as James Young in Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust — have pointed out that testamentary accounts abound in relation to many other wars and atrocities, studies of testimony have — following Wiesel — mainly focused on the Holocaust. In this article, I explore British soldiers' poetic accounts of the Second World War in the Oasis archive, which contains around 20,000 items by over 200 authors. The concepts of victim and perpetrator testimony are both relevant and problematized in relation to soldier testimony. Clearly, the origin of the terms “victim” and “perpetrator” lies in a judicial context, but with the development of critical discussions about testimony outside the courtroom — as in the notion of literary testimony — the efficacy of these terms has been questioned. For Primo Levi, the trace of legal discourse is important, since it allows us to distinguish his tormentors from his fellow prisoners. However, Levi himself introduced the notion of the “grey zone” in which the “guilt” of, for example, the Sonderkommando does not sit easily with legal notions of criminality. In relation to soldier testimony, these categories are similarly vexed, since — as the variety of writing in the Oasis archive attests — an Allied recruit, as a reluctant conscript, or subsequently traumatized individual, or even a violator of the Geneva Convention, could be considered a victim. Sometimes the categories blur within an individual poem, as when Oasis writers celebrate the killing of German soldiers, but then also engage with troubling memories that surface in relation to such events after the war. Who (or what) is a perpetrator in the context of soldier testimony (as opposed to a perpetrator of genocide)? Should the term only be used in a legal sense, or should critical discussions of literary testimony draw on the dictionary definition of a perpetrator as an instigator of (potentially heinous) acts, which may include — whatever the pertinent definition of criminality — the killing of others in combat (OED, 2nd ed.)? Is a soldier only ever a victim (a common descriptor of soldiers after Vietnam and the advent of PTSD in 1980) or something between these two testamentary categories? And — most pertinent for this article — is there such a thing as a perpetrator voice, perspective, or aesthetic when the poet dispassionately records enemy deaths, or — as in Keith Douglas's “Elegy for an 88 Gunner” — voyeuristically mulls over the corpse of an enemy soldier? This article addresses such questions in relation to both the canonical poet Keith Douglas and other, relatively unknown, writers in the Oasis archive.
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Antony Rowland; The Oasis Poets: Perpetrators, Victims, and Soldier Testimony. Comparative Literature 1 December 2011; 63 (4): 366–382. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-1444428
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