08 November 2009

Take up our quarrel with the foe...

I watched this morning's ceremony at the Cenotaph on the telly, and, as usual, found myself slightly perturbed about the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, I think it's important to honour those who've died in their country's service, and I get really bothered by how countries treat their veterans, especially when so many veterans are prone to mental health problems, something that tends to manifest itself in things like the huge proportion of London's homeless who are former servicemen.

(Although this has improved hugely; just a decade or so ago it was 22 per cent, and it's now about 6 per cent.)

But for all that, I can't help but feel a profound ambiguity about the whole thing whilst watching the coverage. There was the fifteen-year-old boy, an Army Cadet from somewhere in the North West -- Salford, I think, though I might be wrong -- saying how he felt it was his duty to go and serve and that he had always wanted to serve his country this way. I stared at the telly at the point and began to rant in exasperation: 'Always? He's fifteen! He's only a little boy, for Heaven's sake!'

There was the reference too a monument being erected in Cyprus to commemorate the 371 British service who were killed there in the 1950s when fighting to prevent Cypriot Independence; granted, they died serving their country, but it was hardly the most just of causes, was it? And I gather there are those in Cyprus who aren't too happy about it.

Again, I'm not saying these soldiers shouldn't be commemorated, and I fully appreciate that Remembrance Sunday is about commemorating the dead, not the wars, but it does have the effect of flattening out all of Britain's conflicts, making all wars seem equally worthwhile by painting all deaths as equally tragic. If everyone who dies for their country is a hero, then who are we to say that the causes for which they died were not just as heroic?

The ubiquitous poppy is at the heart of this, and it's been a propagandist symbol since McCrae penned 'In Flanders Fields'. The poppy had been a symbol of death in British poetry long before the Great War, but it came into its own on the Western Front. McCrae's poem is deceptively peaceful and forlorn, opening with the lines we've heard a thousand times:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
It's a pastoral elegy, isn't it? It contrasts sunset and dawn, hints at a gentle breeze amongs the flowers, alludes to Our Lord's sacrifice, evokes the beautiful song of the larks rising above the gunfire... and then it all changes:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
It's a propaganda poem. It's a blatant recruiting piece, and an outright condemnation of anyone who might be inclined to stop the carnage by working for a negotiated peace, since doing so, in McCrae's mind, would be a betrayal of those who had already died.

I'm not saying that commemorating our war dead on Remembrance Sunday is a bad thing. I'm just saying it's not a straightforward one.


Doc said...

Interesting post, Thirsty, and congratulations on hitting the exact right tone. I know you to take a passing interest in militaria ancient and modern, and I wondered if you had considered exactly how a nation develops a military tradition? Surely it is precisely by creating propaganda about army life and making heroes out of its soldiers? After all, it's a pretty shabby job, and it wouldn't be sustainable without fringe benefits such as one year every day devoted to solemn celebration of your and your colleagues' roles, and general elevated status in popular culture and mass media. How would you sustain a culture of militarism, and continue to recruit, without a celebration of the soldier's role as hero?

Doc said...

The second observation that occurs to me: is it fair to a fallen soldier that he only be commemorated for fighting a popular, or just, war, when in the end military culture demands he obeys whatever orders he is given? Soldiers didn't pick to serve in Cyprus, or Vietnam, or Northern Ireland, but they did the job that was in front of them all the same, even though it was often a pretty shameful job (and I'm the first to hold up my hands on the UK's misadventures at home and abroad). Is it fair to blame the soldiers when the political masters are really the ones responsible?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I don't think there are any easy answers on this.

For instance, if it's not fair to blame soldiers for fighting in 'bad' wars, is it fair to praise them for fighting in 'good' ones?

This also begs the question of what we're commemorating: is it courage, duty, loyalty, and sacrifice? It seems to be, but if so, mustn't we recognise that, say, German and Afghan soldiers displayed these same virtues in the service of their countries?

I don't think Godwin's Law can really be called on a topic like this, so I think it's worth drawing on the lesson of Nuremburg too. Soldiers are no mere automatons; they're not simply the tools of their governments; they're thinking people, like everyone else. Is it good enough to simply say that soldiers in 'bad' wars were just following orders? If so, is sauce for the goose sauce for the goose-stepper?

Like I said, these are hard questions, and I don't have answers.

I think we should commemorate our war dead. Or your war dead. You know what I mean. I wore a poppy, and I watched the ceremony. I'm just not sure how you honour those who've fallen in the service of their country without luring others to do the same thing.