Friday 9 November 2018

Dulce et decorum isn't - Anne Rooney

This is not an image of heroism. It is not an image of sacrifice. It is an image of wretched and criminal desecration. The way we use language to talk about and memorialize the First World War perpetuates a deceitful legacy.

It's a hundred years ago. All the people who were in the war have died. It is long past time to change the rhetoric and speak honestly. Because words are the most powerful thing we have, and how we express things defines how we perceive them, how we feel about them, how we respond to them and, arguably, how they are. We know that. We see it in the impact that political lies have had over the past few years.

And yet still we build war memorials that 'thank' those who 'gave their lives' or 'made the ultimate sacrifice' or, least pernicious but still dishonest, 'fell in service to their country'. Siegfried Sassoon had something to say about such 'memorials':

'Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp...
...Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.'

They did not sacrifice or give their lives. They were robbed of their lives, health, sanity and futures as though these were not their possessions. Their lives were given by the ruling classes of Europe, intent on having a large-scale squabble as soon as they could find an excuse. Some men and boys were tricked into signing up by talk of glory and a quick win and the honour they would garner, but many were conscripted. Those who signed up were hardly giving informed consent and conscription was downright tyranny. The First World War was not fought over causes worth killing and dying for. There was no Hitler, intent on taking over Euope, there were no death camps where huge swathes of our European neighbours were sent to die. It was about territory and bravado, greed and relatively minor (in the scale of things) differences of opinions. I don't think someone reluctantly conscripted can ever said to have 'given' their life — they have had it taken, given for them — but at least in the Second World War the loss was for a worthwhile cause.

By repeating the heroic rhetoric we endorse the view that this was a 'sacrifice'. Who would stand so comfortably beside a war memorial that began: 'This is to honor and apologise to the young men whose lives were torn away from them, to offer some tiny token of atonement for the lives of men and their families and communities shattered by the pride and greed of Europe's rulers.' It's too uncomfortable, isn't it? Too honest. We read the war poets and know the awfulness, or think we do (but of course we don't) and we might pay lip service to the 'waste of a generation' but still our memorials, those official markers of the atrocity, don't own up to what it was.

My generation is the last to grow up in the shadow of that war. The old people of my childhood were its (surviving) victims. We were taught by the legion of women who never married because there weren't enough men, or they lost their man. Many of us had grandparents who had endured the war, would-have-been great uncles who had died in it, relatives who still woke screaming, still had shattered bodies, had the stain of killing on their memories. As the war passes further into the past, with the centenary of its end being a significant marker in that making history of it, let's not forget. But let's not remember in the voice of official remembrance. Let's remember in the way we remember the Holocaust — as desecration, robbery. In Wilfred Owen's words, 'the undone years. The hopelessness.' Let's remember the men ridiculed and bullied for being conscientious objectors. Let's remember the men who refused to accept their medals because taking part in the shameful travesty was nothing to be celebrated. Let's remember, in Sassoon's words 'the unheroic dead who fed the guns.' Let's recognise that honouring the dead is not as useful for a society, and not as honest, as would be a ceremony of remorse, shame and regret that Europe ever let that happen. 

We shouldn't have had to remember them at the going down of the sun; they should have been in their armchairs in the 1960s, grumbling about whatever was on television and sucking Maltesers. And intact. Not having been partially rebuilt by Harold Gillies and his surgical team, or worn a mask, or stayed indoors all their life, or sat on a bench painted blue (to warn the public that horribly disfigured men might sit there, and they should be prepared, when approaching, to hide their alarm). Just suffering the usual troubles of old age, with limbs to have creaking bones in and eyes to become farsighted.

So please let's examine our language carefully. If we say someone 'gave their life', 'sacrificed their life', 'made the ultimate sacrifice', our language assigns agency to the dead. You could almost call it victim-blaming.  If we say we honour the memory of the 'fallen' we remove agency; they look unfortunate, as though they somehow toppled into a trench full of barbed wire and hand grenades. The state should own what it has done; we no longer have the widows whose feelings we might want to spare by upholding the pose that their loved ones made an honorable sacrifice (as if they didn't know the real state of affairs!) The responsibility now is to claw something back from that despicable act of carnage. And all that can be clawed back is to prevent it happening again by acknowledging that it's something to be ashamed of, and that what we are remembering is not honour, but the most cataclysmic act of harm humanity has ever (so far) inflicted on itself.

Anne Rooney

Lonely Planet, Dinosaur Atlas, 2017; illustrated by James Gilleard
Winner, 7-12 years,  SLA Information Books Award
Shortlisted, Royal Society Young People's Book Award 2018


Susan Price said...

Bravo! I agree with every single word you say in this post.

And, arguably, the squabble between cousins for power and wealth, which was the First World War, gave rise to Hitler, who might otherwise never have gained power.

Enid Richemont said...

Absolutely! I agree with every word you've written - my feelings exactly. At least WW2 was actually about something - defeating evil - and we're still fightng that one today, but in different ways. WW1 has been SO romanticised - the trenches were obviously pure hell - but I think we're so fascinated by it because it changed society for ever.

Andrew Preston said...

On the ground..., away from books, poets, and last night's TV program, about the armistice negotiations, which also included the photo shown here...., in most of the town and villages where I've noted the war memorials, there is little reference to the 'Glorious Dead' or heroism. The lists of those who died are usually fairly simple.

Andrew Preston said...

And so it goes on....

As a kid in the '60's, the Remembrance Days, the marches, the Scouts, the Girl Guides, Boys Brigade, local dignitaries and officials. No disabled people as I recall. Through to the victory celebrations of the Falklands war, the fight that wounded people had to go
through to be seen anywhere near the media photo extravaganzas.

I live in an area, Somerset, where I've seldom seen such 'celebration' of 11th November. And such unquestioning attitudes. The local MP got elected with emphasis on his military service. The medals on his chest. He didn't, and doesn't, mention his subsequent BA in Politics at Birmingham University..

I've grown uncomfortable with the whole associations of wearing a red poppy. A code for ... '..."We were once a great nation... '.
If it comes to poppies, a white one does it for me.

Moira Butterfield said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moira Butterfield said...

Well you won't like the blog tomorrow then! There's a photo of poppies (red and white) on it and an explanation of the children's work I saw at Wells Cathedral (in Somerset). I found it impressive that the children had been asked to find out what they could about the names on their village memorials. That way they would get a tiny inkling of what history might actually be about for real people who lived I their area. And I found the poppy installation at the cathedral very moving, and not celebratory in any way. Though I agree that some people are being mawkish, I am uncomfortable that both the left and right of politics seem to be using this event to pick a fight (again).

Andrew Preston said...

Actually, mawkish is the word I'd first intended to use. But, reflecting on it, it seemed slightly insulting. It idn't really summarise what I was trying to say. It's the unquestioning bit that really gets to me. And it's not specifically about right or left. When those kids have done their research, and found out more, how much will subsequently be edited out because it's uncomfortable, or summarised by the facilitator as.. "Yes, they were heroes..".., or "Of course, it couldn't happen now..".
And so, the cultural meme, or whatever one wishes to call it, continues.

Moira Butterfield said...

Yes, it's an interesting thought how their work might have been 'steered'. Let's hope that children can draw their own conclusions about things they have discovered. I don't mean that this blog is politically-motivated, by the way - It's the people coming out on Any Questions type programmes and the newspapers having their hysterical say. It makes it hard to focus on the realities, doesn't it.

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Moira. I don't have a TV so haven't seen Any Questions or similar coverage. I am not complaining about remembrance per se, but about the terms in which some of the discourse is couched - particularly the removal of moral agency from the body politic. I can't see at all how that is a left or right issue.

Theresa Heine said...

I live in a village in North Germany. There is a small war memorial next to the church. On rememberance Sunday the mayor makes a short speech remembering the dead of all wars and all who fought in them. The emphasis is on the horror of war and 'never again.' The village band plays a song 'Ich hatt ein Kamaraden' I had a comrade. Then the national anthem. The mayor and the voluntary fire brigade lay wreaths. There are about twenty people present plus the fire brigade in uniform. No poppies, no talk of sacrifice. For many reasons the world wars here are commemorated differently. I have never been moved by a rememberance service in England. But this simple ceremony is very affecting.

Paul May said...

I agree with everything you say here. Heroism and hero are the words I have most trouble with. My late wife's grandmother, a farm-worker's wife in rural Suffolk, saw five of her six sons go off to fight in WW1. Two of them were killed, and I found their photos among a relatives possessions—those cheap postcards they all took to send back to their families. Someone from the village contacted me to ask me if he could use the pictures in a book and I agreed, but I did feel very uneasy when he started referring to them as heroes. Suffolk labourers had a lot of reasons to join the army. The pay and the food were better, and it gave them a chance to escape from the village. As we know so little about how most of these men died it's impossible to tell if they were heroes. My uncle was a genuine war hero. He risked his life landing a sea-plane in the stormy North Atlantic to rescue survivors from a U-boat attack, but he never talked about it in detail, and I only found out what happened when I met the daughter of one of the survivors at his 90th birthday party. My uncle's view, of course, was that he was only doing his job.

Stroppy Author said...

Paul, I think that could almost be the definition of a hero: someone who denies their heroism and did an honorable job selflessly in the face of immense danger and difficulty. And few of them talk about it.

Katherine Langrish said...

I agree with you Anne. But it is difficult. I saw a news item about a memorial installation of a waterfall of hundreds of crocheted poppies. To me it looked terrible, cringeworthy, garish and naff - but I can imagine the people, probably women, crocheting those poppies were very sincere in their desire to honour the dead, and may well have known as much about the war as I do.