11 November 2007

From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations...

Today's Sunday Business Post carries an unfortunate column by Vincent Browne bearing the title 'Why We Should Shun Remembrance Day Caper'. His argument, in short, is that the First World War was a war about world domination by imperialist elites in which millions of gullible young and mainly impoverished men were conscripted or conned into fighting and dying as a duty. The commemoration of this event, which he describes as 'one of the most evil escapades in history' - and yes, he specifically mentions wearing poppies - is ideological manipulation and nothing else, a collective sanitising of a shameful past. As such, he believes, Ireland should have nothing to do with such behaviour.

Perhaps. It's certainly a refreshing argument, in that it makes a nice difference from simply reciting a litany of British wrongs in Ireland, starting for convenience with the atrocities committed by the Black and Tans and by the Auxiliaries during our war of Independence before moving through the likes of Bloody Sunday, internment, collusion, shoot-to-kill policies, unanswered questions about the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, and all else that was part and parcel of the Troubles. Valid though these points are, largely explaining why Irish people, even in England, often balk at the idea of commemorating Britain's war dead, Vincent is willing to let them go as in his diatribe he has bigger fish to fry.

I think Vincent's missing the point, though. In a couple of ways.

For starters, Remembrance Sunday isn't about commemorating wars, but about commemorating those who died in those wars. There's a subtle, but very important, distinction there.

Secondly, while Vincent's class-based analysis of the Great War has some merit, he overplays his hand, not merely in his emphasis on impoverished working class cannon-fodder, but in his claim that they fed the guns purely for the sake of imperial elites. In a very important sense they did, of course, but as Chesterton remarked a few years later in The Everlasting Man, there was rather more to it than that.
In any case no man will die for practical politics, just as no man will die for pay. Nero could not hire a hundred Christians to be eaten by lions at a shilling an hour, for men will not be martyred for money. But the vision called up by real politik, or realistic politics, is beyond example crazy and incredible. Does anybody in the world believe that a soldier says, 'My leg is nearly dropping off, but I shall go on till it drops; for after all I shall enjoy all the advantages of my government obtaining a warm water port in the Gulf of Finland!' Can anybody suppose that a clerk turned conscript says, 'If I am gassed I shall probably die in torments; but it is a comfort to reflect that should I ever decide to become a pearl-diver in the South Seas, that career is now open to me and my countrymen!' Materialist history is the most madly incredible of all histories, or even of all romances. Whatever starts wars, the thing that sustains wars is something in the soul; that is something akin to religion. It is what men feel about life and about death. A man near to death is dealing directly with an absolute; it is nonsense to say he is concerned only with relative and remote complications that death in any case will end. If he is sustained by certain loyalties, they must be loyalties as simple as death. They are generally two ideas, which are only two sides of one idea. The first is the love of something said to be threatened, if it be only vaguely known as home; the second is dislike and defiance of some strange thing that threatens it. The first is far more philosophical than it sounds though we need not discuss it here. A man does not want his national home destroyed or even changed, because he can not even remember all the good things that go with it; just as he does not want his house burnt down because he can hardly count all the things he would miss. Therefore he fights for what sounds like a hazy abstraction, but is really a house.

But the negative side of it is quite as noble as well as quite as strong . . .

Men are moved in these things by something far higher and holier than policy; by hatred. When men hung on in the darkest days of the Great War, suffering either in their bodies or in their souls for those they loved, they were long past caring about details of diplomatic objects as motives for their refusal to surrender. Of myself and those I knew best I can answer for the vision that made surrender impossible. It was the vision of the German Emperor's face as he rode into Paris.
Yes, Vincent's right when he says that the whole poppy malarkey involves ideological manipulation. It has done so from the first. McCrae's poem that started it all is a shameless piece of propaganda, a masterpiece of rhetoric that recruits the dead and has them exhort the living to fight on, equating negotiation with treachery. That's dangerous talk, the kind of stuff that the opponents of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland on both sides have wheeled out time and again to justify their actions. But then, the dead are always dumb and defenceless, silent ghosts to be conscripted on our terms. Look at Pericles' Funeral Speech, at Polybius' description of Roman funerals, at the Gettysburg Address, at Pearse's speech at the grave of O'Donovan Rossa. This never changes.

But here's the thing. Indignant at this ideological manipulation, this cleansing of the historical record, Vincent Browne asserts that we should not participate in any commemoration that masks such a crime against humanity as the Great War; the First World War, he insists, should be remembered in infamy, with those who persuaded people into the trenches being remembered, at most, with forgiveness.

Fair enough, but maybe that's what Remembrance Sunday helps us to do.

We can go to our monuments, our memorials, our cenotaphs, and our tombs of unknown soldiers, and lay our wreaths, and say our prayers, and wear our poppies, and we can treat the dead with the respect that custom and propriety demands. And then, afterwards, over lunch, or in the pub, or in the letters pages and opinion columns of our newspapers, or all over the internet we can explain just what it was that we were commemorating, and why.

Having wondered about this for all the years I lived in England, last November, when just visiting, I wore one for the first time. It seemed the right thing to do, and more appropriate - albeit less funny - than wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Basil Fawlty and the legend 'Don't mention the war!'

I'm not wearing one this year, but then I am at home; I expect I'll be wearing one again next year, though. I may even manage to fasten it in place without help.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Last year, for the first time in my years living in Ireland, I wore the poppy for Remembrance Sunday. Two things surprised me: one, that so many people said, "How brave you are!"; and two, that despite that, I had no aggro and no negative comments whatsoever. Seems we've all grown up a bit - apart from Vincent Browne.