The scene is in the trenches on the muddy, bloody Western Front. It appears in the third volume of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy of the First World War, Parades’ End (1924-1928), where a war-weary Sergeant Major says this to the story’s hero, Christopher Tietjens:
“Then a man could stand hup on an ’ill . . . You really mean to say, sir, that you think a man will be able to stand up on a bleedin’ ’ill.”
The Sergeant-Major is talking about what he imagines it will be like once the War has ended, the shooting has stopped, and the muddy men can climb up out of their trenches, burrows and bunkers. The Sergeant Major goes on to say,
“You want to stand up! Take a look round . . . . Like as if you wanted to breathe deep after bein’ in a stoopin’ posture for a long time!”
The Sergeant Major gave Ford the title of his third volume, A Man Could Stand Up (1926). As Christopher Tietjens reflects somewhat later in the novel,
“For the Lincolnshire Sergeant-Major the word Peace meant that a man could stand up on a hill.”
Stand up on a hill, breathe deep, look round, and not be picked off by a sniper, mowed down by a machine gun, or torn to shreds by whistling scraps of deadly shrapnel.
* * * * *
Freedom of speech is often defended on the grounds that dissent and debate are necessary in the “search for truth.” This may be true, but the social utility of the “marketplace of ideas” is not the principle grounds for freedom of speech. Men and women should be permitted to speak freely because they “stand up on a hill” when they speak freely. Denial of this liberty forces them to scurry down off their hills, assume a “stoopin’ posture,” and submit to the degradation of an unwilling liar, a accidental coward.
When I say unwilling liar, I mean a dissembler who does not wish to be a dissembler. I mean men and women who are not natural frauds, but whose natural inclination is to stand up on hills in all frankness and candor. This natural inclination to frankness and candor is good, but it is perverted when snipers and machine-gunners set the price of honestly standing up on a hill too high.
And when I say accidental coward, I simply mean a proud and plucky person for whom the price of honesty is too high when the price is to be picked off by a sniper, mowed down by a machine gun, or torn to shreds by whistling scraps of shrapnel.
You do not live in a free country if only toadies and suicidal martyrs are permitted to stand up on hills. This is the principal reason why men and women should be permitted to stand up, even on hills—even on very lonely hills where there is no one standing up beside them.
It is true that freedom of speech permits naturally fraudulent liars to run wild, and that it sets the price of honesty so low that fraudulent liars will stand up on hills beside drooling fools, both blabbering foolish and dangerous things. But these scoundrels will have degraded themselves into scoundrels; these fools will have degraded themselves into fools. No screaming bullets will have forced them to tell lies; no whistling shrapnel will have forced them to blabber folly.
The evil cause by fools and frauds is small compared to the evil of forcing honest men and women to “keep their heads down,” assume a “stoopin’ posture,” and submit to the degradation of an unwilling liar, an accidental coward. I do not say this to shame anyone who is not presently standing up on a hill, since those screaming bullets are real, and that whistling shrapnel draws blood.