11 November 2012

Remembering Again

“Such was their burial of Hektor, breaker of horses.”

So, after the description of the funeral games in honour of Troy's greatest son, ends the Iliad, which began by reflecting on the carnage wrought by the wrath of the Greek forces' mightiest hero:
“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which puts pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.”
If the Iliad still speaks to us after almost three thousand years it does so not merely because it is beautiful, and not merely because life is -- among other things -- a battle in which how we conduct ourselves in the short time we have here matters profoundly; rather, it centres on our deep and abiding need to make sense of war.

The first step in doing so, as a rule, lies in commemorating our dead, which is probably why it felt so cathartic last year when Britain's Queen Elizabeth II stood in silence in Ireland’s Garden of Remembrance, recognising all those who died fighting against Britain in the cause of Irish freedom, be that in 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, 1916, or the War of Independence. 

Here lie the dead of Marathon, as commemorated by the 192 horsemen of the Parthenon frieze.
As long as we've fought we have commemorated our dead, often giving our warrior dead special honours in death. Stephen Pinker argues that the high proportion of prehistoric skeletons showing evidence of violent trauma shows that we've become less violent over the millennia, but he glosses over how those who've died in battle are often specially honoured in death, such that their graves are more easily found than those of people who've died in more mundane ways. If anything, I suspect we've become far more violent over the centuries. 

It's not less violent to kill someone with guided drones than with a knife; it's just tidier. For us. 

As a war historian, and an Irishman who happens to be half-English and has lived in England for most of the last decade, I've long found Remembrance Sunday deeply problematic. Indeed, the first couple of weeks of November are always tricky for me. All Saints and All Souls are feasts of remembrance to which I unambiguously ally myself, but I dislike Guy Fawkes Night, and I'm always uncomfortable about Remembrance Sunday, though I think it important that Britain's war dead be properly honoured and that her veterans be properly supported; even now far too many of Britain's homeless are people who once served their country in arms.

I've had no shortage of family members who've fought in Britain's wars, whether in the Chitral Expedition, the Boer War, the Great War, World War II, or even Northern Ireland, but it wasn't until 2006 that I first wore a poppy, pinned onto my coat by a then recent ex-girlfriend one windy day in Liverpool as she managed the trick of firmly murmuring "I feel you should wear this". 

The first challenge is how to honour the dead without glorifying the wars in which they fought. We have to be honest and admit that plenty of Britain's wars have been far from honourable. The aforementioned Boer War, for instance, was a shameless land grab, and is hardly unique among Britain's wars in meriting such a description. I think most of us feel uncomfortable about the many wars Britain fought to deny people their independence, wherever they might be. And then, of course, there's the little matter of the invasion of Iraq nine years ago, justified at the time by the transparent fiction that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which he was refusing to surrender. 

The German cemetery at Langemarck. Because thousands of German children marched to war in 1914 too.
We can't deny this. An honest patriot cannot celebrate his countrymen’s heroism unless he also recognises their sins. "My country, right or wrong is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case," as G.K. Chesterton put it, "It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"

Of course, I don’t think we can or should blame soldiers for having fought in bad wars. War is often the continuation of political intercourse with the intermixing of other means, and as Kevin O’Higgins put it when putting down the Irish army mutiny in 1924, “those who take the pay and wear the uniform of the state, be they soldiers or police, must be non-political servants of the state.”

This has a correlative, however; if we’re not to shame soldiers for having had the misfortune to serve in bad wars, neither should we laud them for having been lucky enough to serve in good ones. We need to be careful too when indulging in the rhetoric of the ‘greatest generations’, not least because even the noblest of wars almost invariably encompass a multitude of sins

I firmly believe that we should honour our dead, and mourn those lives so brutally lost, and support those who've come home physically maimed or mentally scarred; I also believe that in doing so we should not forget how many wars were driven by cynicism, greed, and pride, and how there has been no shortage of soldiers over the years who've shamed the uniforms they wore. 

Remembrance Sunday, like I said, is complicated.

The second big problem, of course, lies in the fact that as the soldiers of the Great War have died, and those of the Second World War have grown fewer and more frail by the year, that Remembrance Sunday’s purpose seems to have changed, such that it’s in danger of excusing and even glorifying the shoddier wars of yesterday, today, and even tomorrow.

Much of the popularity of Harry Patch, Britain’s last surviving veteran of the First World War, was down to his impatience with those who tended to romanticise wars, and his bitter recognition that war was nothing more than ‘organised murder’. 

For him, Remembrance Sunday was ‘just showbusiness’.

When the reality represented by the likes of Harry Patch no longer exists to remind us of  soldiers hurrying to safety past their screaming, moaning, dying comrades, it’s easy for people to exploit their legends. There’s a simple level at which Remembrance Sunday is about recruiting as much as anything else – I was shocked a couple of years back when the build-up to coverage included an interview with a young Salford teenager  who was saying that he felt it was his duty to serve and that he’d always wanted to be a soldier. 

Of course, it’s always been like this at some level. The 1915 McCrae poem about the poppies of Flanders fields ends with an exhortation to fight on, and to scorn negotiated peace as a betrayal of those who have fallen:
“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.”
People fought on for three more years, and millions more died in the most horrible and pointless of ways. It’s hardly surprising that Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, damns this final verse as a stupid and even vicious propaganda argument.

Would a negotiated peace in 1916, preventing the Somme, really have betrayed the dead of Gallipoli?
We honour the dead, but we use them too, enlisting them as recruiting officers, summoning our children to serve and die in emulation of them. There’s nothing new in this. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Polybius described how Roman funerals were used in just this way:
“By this constant renewal of the good report of brave men, the name of those who have performed any noble deed is made immortal, and the renown of those who have served their country well becomes a matter of common knowledge and a heritage for posterity. But the most important consequence of the ceremony is that it inspires young men to endure the extremes of suffering for the common good in the hope of winning the glory that waits upon the brave.”
It’s not just Remembrance Sunday that stirs these confused feelings within me. Being a military historian invites all sorts of questions, not least because time and again I’ve had to explain to people that being interested in war doesn’t entail liking it, and I’ve wrestled with these issues while visiting military cemeteries in Ireland and Belgium, Turkey and Greece, and as I’ve walked battlefields as diverse as Marathon, Thermopylae, Trasimene, Cannae, Hastings, Ypres, and Gallipoli.

How do we honour the dead without glorifying the wars? How do we honour them without luring thousands more to early graves? How do we make sense of war at all?

I have no idea. The more I learn, the less I feel I know.

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