flyby: [kingdom hearts: kairi and the heart of the world] (and hope that our hearts will blend)
[personal profile] flyby
Content warnings: war, death, violence, horror

I recently read this piece by Harry Leslie Smith at the Guardian, in which he (a veteran of the Second World War) explains his reasoning for deciding no longer to wear a poppy for Remembrance Day. In large part, I agree with him; the ceremonies of remembrance are more and more becoming ceremonies of militaristic nationalism. We glorify our soldiers, and fetishise the grief of their bereaved; I saw them trotted out for a standing ovation at the Festival Of Remembrance on Saturday night, as though their losses could be made more meaningful by a jingoistic spotlight and a song from James Blunt.

Our culture has an obsession with the Second World War. Documentaries and dramatisations play constantly, and not just on the history channels. We are sold national pride and glory on the back of our triumph over Nazi Germany; we are sold the horrors of war with grand words of democracy and freedom and the defeat of evil. This is what war is, we are told - terrible, yes, but honourable, brave, necessary. And the bands play, and the flags fly.

We don't see so much about the First World War. Occasionally, there will be the odd programme, or a Time Team special from Flanders Fields. Have you ever wondered why that is? I've come to the conclusion that it's because, when you get down to it, there is no way to present the Great War, the War that should have Ended All Wars, as a heroic and necessary struggle. There was no great evil, no terrible dictator wreaking suffering and oppression, no brave and honourable reason for that war. In essence the whole thing was a pissing contest between the great patriarchal powers of Europe, a squabble over land and territory that was played out by privileged generals spending the lives of their troops like spare change.

(Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance.)

This is what we should be saying about the First World War: that it was brutal, barbaric, decimating - and ultimately close to pointless. The men slogging through waist-deep water in rat-infested trenches, mutilated by gas, lobotomised for shell-shock or just plain lost to the mud and sludge of No Man's Land - they weren't fighting for some noble cause that they were happy to sacrifice themselves for. They were sent there to die, by leaders whose patriarchal honour and reputation meant far more to them than any number of lives lost. The likes of Field Marshal Haig couldn't be seen to back down by changing strategy, or even by stopping the fighting once it was over. At 5am on this day, 95 years ago, the Armistice was officially signed, but since it didn't take effect until 11am, the generals on both sides sent everyone over the top again at 10:30.

A pissing contest, sending thousands and millions of men to die for the sake of their reputations. North-east France and Belgium were turned into one enormous mass grave because privileged men refused to back down; the farmers still turn up bones every year as they plough their fields. This, the pointlessness of this war, is the thing we should be remembering, especially now in the run-up to the anniversary. I'm going to quote Harry Leslie Smith here, from the piece linked above:

This is why I find that the government's intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane.

We should absolutely remember, but we should remember it as it was: the sordid, devastating, and ultimately meaningless waste of millions of lives.

In the end I return, as always, to Wilfred Owen: There is no glory in war. Only pain and death.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, d.1918


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