The Somme: A Deeper Question

First published 2016

I’ve just been reading, during the commemorations for the Battle of the Somme, Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ about ‘these who die as cattle’. A comment by a member of the wonderful group, Veterans For Peace UK, on Facebook about the ceremonies read, ‘All the talk of fallen and sacrifice gets me. Those men did not fall they were ripped apart.’ which is exactly right. Senseless mass slaughter……and I couldn’t get Owen’s poem out of my head. That phrase ‘these who die as cattle’ is there in the very first line, the simile so fitting we don’t even need to consciously process it because it immediately and directly transmits the scale of the horror to the reader. Men are dying like slaughtered cattle; butchered in great numbers. Herded to their deaths as if they have no more worth than doomed cows.


‘Like cattle’ reverberated in my mind and I wondered if Owen knew, when he wrote it, what he was actually revealing about the connection between the violence of a society that can recruit and conscript, then murder, thousands of young men, and can also perpetrate such a level of routine violence on ‘cattle’ that its existence can be used as an effective shorthand for one of the most shocking episodes of human violence in history. Because, in truth, these are not separate issues, but intimately connected, with deep roots and even deeper implications.

The single source of violence against humans and animals lies embedded in a culture for which violence on a mass scale, towards both, is justifiable. And the results of this sickness can be seen on the battlefields of history and in the human track record of barbarity towards other species from the Roman games to the present day. And yet most people could not kill another human being and could not kill an animal themselves, the reality would be just too painful for them. It is only by a process of careful conditioning that anyone can do it (barring psychopaths)  The soldier desensitised to the enemy has been encouraged to think of him as less than human; and the killing floors of abattoirs are safely behind walls which are not quite as solid as the ones we erect in our own psyches to protect us from the horrors within.

Read this quote:

“A lot of the guys drink and drug their problems away. Some of them end up abusing their spouses because they can’t get rid of the feelings.”

A soldier? No. A slaughterhouse worker. Violence, even when executed by a man who has been through a conditioning process, has its psychic and emotional cost. For the soldier it begins when he reaches basic training; for the slaughterman, the prevailing cultural indifference towards the wellbeing of food animals as opposed to our care and love for our companion animals is a daily indoctrination that all of us sign up for just by being born. Still, only the psychopaths thrive on the killing floor, and plenty are attracted to it. The others break down, leave, or gradually – and tragically – become immune to the suffering. And when empathy is eroded here, the link between pity for animals and humans becomes clearer:

“You don’t care about people’s pain anymore. I used to be very sensitive and willing to listen. After a while, you become desensitized.” US slaughterhouse worker

(Directly under this article you will see information on the book from which these quotes are taken).

This connection can be seen most starkly when we examine criminology research. A study carried out in the Soviet Union found that ‘over 87 percent of a group of violent criminals had, as children, burned, hanged, or stabbed domestic animals. In the US, a major study at Yale University found that children who abuse animals have a much higher likelihood of becoming violent criminals. A 1997 study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported that youngsters convicted of animal abuse are five times more likely to commit violence against other humans than are their peers.’

This truth, that there is an unbreakable thread linking animal and human violence, has been continually denied by wider society, because the causes of our violence cannot be too closely scrutinized. Violence against each other on a mass scale is called war, and perpetual war is in the interests of the Elites. Nothing can be allowed to threaten the war machine and so wars must be seen to be prosecuted only for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, thus making extreme violence acceptable. War on other species is called tradition, mostly. Both are highly profitable. Both cause untold suffering. Both are goaded on by the same psychopathic minority whose power and profits are threatened by any individual’s examination of their own conscience. Because this can lead to awakening, and awakened people are dangerous. Hence the state’s true view of both human and animal rights activists as a threat to the calm order of business.

Throughout history, however, awakened people have tried to tell us about the roots of violence and the relationship between human and animal brutality, about the corollary which states that without a ceasefire order that will stop the barrage against the animal nations, human society can never know peace:

‘As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.’ Leo Tolstoy

‘Thomas Tryon (1634-1703) warned the first Quaker settlers of Pennsylvania that their “holy experiment” in peaceful living would fail unless they extended their precepts of nonviolence to the animal kingdom: “I must be bold to tell you, that these lesser violences (as you call them) do proceed from the same root of wrath and bitterness as the greater do.”

‘For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.’ Pythagorus

‘We will never improve relations between men until we have learned the lesser art of compassion for those we can safely ill-treat’. Jon Wynne-Tyson

The Nobel Prize-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer said:

“As long as people will shed the blood of innocent animals there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. Slaughter and justice cannot dwell together.”

Singer, who lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust, made a bold and direct comparison between the suffering of those in the concentration camps and those in slaughterhouses:

‘All other creatures were created merely to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis – for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in the late eighteenth century, said something so profound when he brought the issue of human slavery into the discourse on the treatment of animals, that the latter part has become a much repeated quote. Here it is in full:

‘The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?… The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes… “

Milan Kundera, in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, directly identifies the touchstone of human morality:

“True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which is deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.”

Matthew Scully, author of ‘Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy’ writes:

“Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honourable conduct. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t. Because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

If I want to live a nonviolent life then I have to ask myself a few questions about power, because as Kundera so eloquently points out, my true moral test comes when I could easily abuse or dominate and I refuse to do so. Even the most powerless human being can still dominate an animal and this is why their kind treatment is such a profound marker for our commitment to refusing to abuse our power as human beings. Matthew Scully took the title of his book from the Bible, where it clearly states – as so many religious defenders of animal abuse never tire of reminding us – that ‘man is given dominion over the animals’. But what, if we are to consider ourselves moral beings, does that word ‘dominion’ mean? Does it mean to exploit, torture and murder in ways and on a scale that would, as it has been said, ‘do honour to the managers of an inferno’? Or does it mean to protect and defend those who cannot protect and defend themselves?

Genesis also says of animals, ‘into your hands they are delivered’ and this phrase has always had a deep effect on me, with its imagery of totally defenceless and vulnerable beings placed in our keeping. What do we do, we must ask ourselves, when we are given such responsibility? For me, there is no distinction within this question between what I do when given power over a helpless human being or a helpless animal. If I have strength, what kind of person am I if use my strength to abuse rather than to protect those weaker than myself? And if I hold dear the concept of nonviolence, how can I perpetrate it whether directly or, by my consent, indirectly by having others unleash it on my behalf?


The conditioning we absorb concerning our schizophrenic treatment of animals is begun, in this society, so early that we have no critical faculties with which to combat it, although many children do movingly protest by empathetic instinct an injustice they can see more clearly than their parents until they are ‘educated’ about the ‘realities’ of life. Most of us emerge into adulthood having been programmed, on a deep level, to accept a moral inconsistency which cannot stand up to even the most cursory ethical examination. This was my own experience and it leads inevitably to cognitive dissonance. And it is right there where we make our decision: do we grasp for ego-defence and shaky rationalization, or do we bring our stated values into line with our lived lives?

Matthew Scully, has thought about it:

‘I know that factory farming is an economic inevitability, not likely to end anytime soon. But I don’t answer to inevitabilities, and neither do you. I don’t answer to the economy. I don’t answer to tradition and I don’t answer to Everyone. For me, it comes down to a question of whether I am a man or just a consumer. Whether I reason or just rationalize. Whether to heed my conscience or my every craving, to assert my free will or just my will. Whether to side with the powerful and comfortable or with the weak, afflicted, and forgotten.”

‘These who die as cattle’ Wilfred Owen wrote about the carnage of the Somme.  And finally now, can we read those words in the context of a damaged human culture that allows a thread of violence to run unbroken between ourselves and animals so that brutality and bloodshed can be rained down upon both. For the animals, said Singer, ‘all people are Nazis’. But not me. Once yes. But not now. And not ever again. And maybe not you?

‘Nonviolence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.’ Thomas Edison.

When Gail Eisnitz wrote her book Slaughterhouse, she interviewed hundreds of workers in the industry. Every single one admitted to cruelty towards the animals they killed. This is borne out by every undercover investigation that’s ever been filmed in a slaughterhouse.  In other words, what you are about to read is routine. Note the emotional and psychological effect the work has on some of the workers and the unjust conditions they have to operate in. From her book:

“A lot of the guys drink and drug their problems away. Some of them end up abusing their spouses because they can’t get rid of the feelings.”

“You don’t care about people’s pain anymore. I used to be very sensitive and willing to listen. After a while, you become desensitized.”

“They’re fighting you, kicking at you, squealing, trying to bite you- doing whatever they can to try and get away from you…You become emotionally dead.”

“The company won’t allow workers to leave the line when they have to go to the bathroom. Sometimes they have to relieve themselves on the floor.”

‘Pigs on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a baby. Two minutes later I have to kill them. Beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.’

‘One time I took my knife – it’s sharp enough – and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose. The hog went crazy for a few seconds, then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts. I still had a bunch of salt in my left hand – I was wearing a rubber glove – and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s ass. The poor hog didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.’

‘You don’t just kill it, you go in hard. Blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood. A hog would just be looking up at me and I’d be sticking, and I would take my knife out and cut its eye out while it was just sitting there, and this hog would just scream.’

‘I’ve seen hogs in the scalding tub trying to swim.’

‘Hogs get stressed out pretty easy. If you prod them too much they have heart attacks. If you have a hog in the chute that’s had the shit prodded out of him and has a heart attack or refuses to move, you take a meat hook and hook it into his bunghole (anus). You’re dragging these hogs alive, and a lot of times the hook rips out of the bunghole.’

“I’ve seen thousands of cows go through alive. Sometimes they have all the skin out and they’re all peeled. You can tell they’re alive because when you look at their eyes, you can see tears…”

“I’ve complained about the way animals are treated to the foremen, the inspectors, the kill floor superintendent over the beef division… I’ve gotten so mad some days I’d go and pound on the wall because they won’t do anything about it.” –

On the slaughter trucks in winter, pigs freeze to the steel railing. They’ll hook a cable on him and pull him out, maybe pull a leg off while they’re still alive.’

“We used to trim the shit off the meat. Then we washed the shit off the meat. Now, the consumer eats the shit off the meat.” -David Carney, USDA Meat Inspector.

“Piglets that don’t grow fast enough are swung and bashed headfirst onto the concrete floor. This is standard practice by mega-farm workers and called ‘thumping’”

“Rotten meat is mixed with fresh meat and sold for baby food… We are asked to mix it with the fresh food, and this is the way it is sold. You can actually see the worms inside the meat.”

Q: “So what’s the procedure for checking humane slaughter?”

A: “There isn’t one… Inspectors are required to enforce humane regulations on paper only.” – U.S. Slaughterhouse Worker.

“They end up drowning in the scalding tank before they ever bleed to death. They hit the water and start screaming and kicking.”

“Mucous and blood clot defects on the animal’s flesh don’t count unless they are over 2 cm long. The USDA has set tolerance limits at 35 defects per carcass..” – U.S. Meat inspector, affidavit.

“The boss paid the inspector off in meat, sometimes cash, to let them get away with stuff which shouldn’t happen.” – U.S. Slaughterhouse Worker.

“If I see a live animal, I can’t stop the line. The supervisor has told us that you have to work on a live animal.”

“If she collapses near a chute, a meat hook is shoved through her cheek and she’s just dragged forward.”

“Nobody knows who’s responsible for correcting animal abuse at the plant. The USDA does zilch. Especially in hog kill, where you have hogs going through at eleven hundred an hour, the abuse is totally out of control.”

“I’ve seen birds with cancerous tumors come through regularly, sometimes all day long. While on quality control, I’d pull off those I saw, but I couldn’t possibly catch them all.”

“What they usually do is when the cow’s guts fall onto the gut table, they rip the uterus open and pull these calves out. It’s nothing to have a live cow hanging up in front of you and see the calf inside kicking, trying to get out.”

“They cut off the feet while the cow is breathing. It makes noise. It’s looking around… Their eyes look like they are popping out. Cows can get seven minutes down the line and still be alive.”

Below is footage filmed by Animal Aid inside fourteen UK slaughterhouses, including Soil Association approved ones.

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