Forster's apparently evergreen remark, about choosing to betray your country rather than your friends, has always seemed to me to be - as well as an exercise in moral casuistry - the father and mother of a false antithesis. I mean to say, who ever is actually faced, or has been faced, with such a choice? In 1917 or thereabouts, Siegfried Sassoon confided to his friend Robert Graves that he was planning to 'go public', as a decorated front-line officer, with what he knew about real conditions on the Western Front. Graves had him put away for 'shell-shock', for his own good. That was certainly a betrayal of a friend and, I would argue, also a betrayal of the country. Kim Philby, who actually did set out to betray a country as well as a class, was also strikingly disloyal to his friends (though they, almost irrespective of politics, seem to have been loyal to him). In order for Forster's Choice to come up in your own life, you must be able to plead that there is something tremendously the matter with either a. your country or b. your circle of friends. When Willy Brandt put on the uniform of a country that was fighting his own - the action for which the German conservatives never forgave him - he was not thinking: 'Pity about my friends, but I feel I have to betray my country.' Nor, if he had elected to betray his friends, could he have argued that he was doing his country much of a favour.
LRB 12 January 1995 | PDF Download