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“They Did Not Look Quite Like Men, and Yet They Were Men:” The Honest Depiction of Soldiers in The Forbidden Zone

October 27, 2022

          Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone: A Nurse's Impressions of the First World War provides a unique perspective to the First World War as it recounts several of Borden’s experiences as a nurse in France in a poetic style that makes the horrors of war seem all the more vivid and lucid, yet she does not shy away from the true and ugly side of war. For as colorful and abstract as her language can be, her stories often tell tales of the reality of the war, not glamorous propaganda. Her stories depict soldiers as imperfect humans, yet human nonetheless. Our western society tends to be quick to glorify the soldier/veteran trope. “Whenever the world makes you cynical; whenever you seek true humility and true selflessness, look to a veteran... Whenever the world makes you cynical, whenever you doubt that courage and goodness and selflessness is possible, stop and look to a veteran.” These remarks given by U.S. President Barack Obama are unquestionably heartfelt and lovely, but they also showcase and reaffirm the magnificent image of a soldier/veteran that we often envision. It is also this kind of sentiment that Borden does not allow herself to be influenced by. Borden negates this kind of sentiment and its early-century equivalent throughout her writings. Her depictions of certain figures are brutally honest, it is a depiction wherein many military men do not always seem so heroic and bystanders are not always so welcoming. Nothing seems more striking than her depictions of the soldiers of war, and the gruesome reality that they endured.

          In most traditional depictions, Soldiers are often depicted and made out to be the ultimate symbol of bravery, honor, and sacrifice, yet Borden does not hesitate to dispel the illustrious but they also showcase and reaffirm the image of a soldier and replace it with a more ground-level image. The Forbidden Zone beings with a story titled “Belgium.” One of the many striking images in that story is the image of the disheartened soldiers. “They are soldiers. You can read on their heavy jowls, in their stupefied, patient, hopeless eyes, how boring it is to be a hero” (Borden 8). Boredom is not something usually associated with being a soldier, much less a hero. It seems that this statement is Borden playing with the idea of heroism and poking fun at the notion of the grand adventure that supposedly awaited those who participate in the war. The soldiers do not seem so filled with the life of one who is told they are going to make the world a better place. It seems that they are not so invigorated by the “backings” of their country.

Our country's urgent need. British propaganda for the First World War.

          Propaganda such as the image shown above showcases the country’s willingness to call forth and

demand for their men, both young and aged, for the sake of their country. Yet once they are overseas fighting both the physical enemy and their internal qualms, Borden claims that most idyllic sentiments of patriotism disappear, “And the song of the nation that comes from the horns in the front of the wine shop, the song like the bleating of sheep, can it help them? Can it deceive them? Can it whisk from their faces the stale despair, and unutterable boredom, and brighten their disappointed eyes?” (Borden 8). The grand sense of patriotism is missing like a hole where the heart should be; where is the love for country that propaganda says is what keeps a soldier going? In the story of “The Regiment” Borden continues to depict soldiers as she found them to be, she does not paint the soldiers in neither a negative nor a positive light, she simply reveals the reality she knew. “And they were all deformed... Each one had been twisted and bent in the same way. Each one carried the same burden that bowed his back, the same knapsack, the same roll of blanket, the same flask, the same dangling box, the same gun. Each one dragged swollen feet in the same thick-crusted boots. The same machine had twisted and bent them all. They did not look quite like men, and yet they were men” (Borden 23). The great hero who leaves only with a heroic scar seems to be only a myth.  is something Borden makes sure not to censor – an act of respect. This is also clearly evident in the story “Rosa.” This story tells the tale of a soldier who attempted to commit suicide. Borden describes the gruesome scene of the self-inflicted wound. “His head was bound with a soiled bandage; his eyes were closed; his bruised mouth was open. Thick tufts of red hair pushed through the head bandage. There was dried blood round his immense rough lips. His huge red face was dark and blurred. He was covered with dust. He looked as if he had been rolling in a dirty field like some farm animal” (Borden 63). Yet the troubling physical image does not compare to the troubling figurative image that his man will go on to represent. The narrator, Borden, proclaims that, “this man was not afraid of being killed, but of not being killed” (Borden 68). To the military, this man is cowardly, and represents something that they must subdue swiftly. “But what was the good of arguing against army regulations? We were at war. The General could do nothing. The man must be made an example, so that these epidemics of suicide could be kept in check” (Borden 69). Borden manages to do two things with this man and with this story: she depicts a physically and emotionally wounded soldier, and she also manages to depict the realities of what a man like this means to the world at this time. This man is grotesquely misshapen in a non-heroic manner, yet he is human. He is not the unbreakable soldier that the government was selling to those back home in the United Kingdom and the United States. This man carries the fragile essence of any human, but that is not what the military and country needed. That is not who society needed to believe in.









The perception of returning soldiers. U.S. Social Engineering for veterans.

This image partially showcases the treatment of veterans of the first world war. A veteran is expected to be a strong, respectable, upright, wide-chinned, clear-minded fellow. He was not allowed to be sullen, troubled, fragile, weary, or tired. He had to be a role model and an icon, not a burden, menace, or stain in society. The physical and mental troubles of veterans were not at the forefront of societies problems. Such sentiments are echoed by Private John McCauley of the 2nd Border Regent. When recounting his return home, he says, "'They died that England might live.' I hear these words ringing in my ears like the daily dinning of the shellfire in the trenches. But what if those who died could come back and see what it was they fought for? I wonder what their thoughts would be? Perhaps they would say, 'we are better and happier in our world.' Who knows?” (Emden 5250).

          With her writing, Borden manages to cross a boundary; the unspoken societal norm that soldiers should be respected no matter what and are free from most forms of criticism is broken in The Forbidden Zone. In western society, we are often taught to be most respectful of veterans and to acknowledge their presence. A commercial by Anheuser Busch titled, “Welcome Home Troops,” depicts this sentiment. In this commercial, we see an ordinary airport. As a group of soldiers arrive dressed in their uniforms, the civilians begin to stand up, clap, and cheer for them. They are given a warm standing ovation. As the commercial fades to black, the simple words “thank you” appear. I mention this commercial because it a perfect embodiment of the societal norm we uphold. Soldiers and veterans are universally revered and often unquestionably respected. It is this same societal norm that Borden somewhat uncomfortably breaks in The Forbidden Zone. Perhaps the most notable moment in the book where this is evident is in the story of “The Beach.” This heartbreaking story tells a narrative of a couple, one of them is a wounded veteran of the war. It is reasonable to believe that one who has given a part of themselves for our betterment should deserve some kind of admiration, yet in this story the veteran is portrayed as a hurt and bitter man. Unjustly hurt, but also callously bitter. Instead of being stoic in his troubles, he troubles others who are innocent. The troubles of war have begun to rot his soul. “He was rotting and he was tied to her perfection. He had no power over her any more but the power of infecting her with his corruption. He could never make her happy. He could only make her suffer. His one luxury now was jealousy of her perfection, and his one delight would be to give in to the temptation to make her suffer. He could only reach her that way. It would be his revenge on the war” (Borden 36). It is honest anguish that he is displaying, not any sort of masked sentiment that is worn on paradesBorden manages to bring honesty in the depictions of soldiers, even if it goes against the norms of society. 

          The soldiers depicted in Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone are not always depicted in a positive manner. Yet, Borden does not purposefully depict them in a negative manner either. What Borden is doing is recounting the true stories she experienced near the front-lines of the first world war. She is not afraid to recount every gruesome detail, if it is necessary; she does not add any more details than is needed but she does not forgo any less. She depicts a reality that is complicated. Yet there is also some comfort in honesty and the truth. In this light, the truth is a gift to all who have interest in or have themselves endured the powerful scenes of war. There is no bias or agenda, it is simply the act of conveying something to be nothing more than what it really was. Though we know these soldiers were brave, Borden also allows us to see that they were also only ever just humans thrown into a despairing and unforgiven place. 

These remarks were given on November 11, 2016, Veterans’ Day, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia

An example of this aesthetic is the character Victor Laszlo from the film Casablanca (1942). Victor has a thin scar above his right eyebrow, thus making him seem interesting without disfiguring his face.

This propaganda designed by the U.S. Army was meant to convey to veterans how they were expected to behave once they returned to society. They were only ever meant to be seen by returning soldiers.

A reference to parades held in honor of soldiers / veterans. An example is documented in another Anheuser Busch commercial titled “A Hero’s Welcome: Full Story.”


          Borden, Mary. The Forbidden Zone. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2008. Print

Busch, Anheuser. “Troops coming home commercial.” YouTube, uploaded by morningafter907, July 15, 2006,

---. “Budweiser Super Bowl XLVIII – “A Hero’s Welcome: Full Story”.” YouTube, uploaded by City of Winter Park, July 23, 2015,

Casablanca. Directed by Michael Curtiz, performances by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, Warner Brothers, 1942.

Chrisinger, David. “The Army’s Message to Returning World War I Troops? Behave Yourselves.” NY Times. July 31, 2019. Digital.

Emden, Richard van. The Soldier's War: The Great War Through Veterans' Eyes. E-Book. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. Digital.

Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President on Veterans Day.” Veterans Day Ceremony, 11 November 2016, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. Remarks.

W. Straker. Our country's urgent need. Every physically fit and hardy man required at once. Join the Sportsman's Battalions. Do it now. 1915. Library of Congress.









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Bio Contact (Afternoon)


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Miguel is a writer, editor, photographer, videographer, and content creator. He has had an interest in literature ever since a young age and has developed a passion for visual storytelling over the years. He is fluent in English & Spanish, proficient in French, and learning Japanese. Recently, he graduated from the Columbia Publishing Course, Oxford. Prior to that he obtained his Master of Arts degree in Literature from The University of Kent Paris.



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