Monday, August 04, 2014

The Lie about the Glory of War...

Wrestling with the story of the First World War is to wrestle with a monster. You think that you’ve tied down one bit and it rears its ugly head again and bites you. So there is a tendency to simplify – to say it was “evil” (which it was) or that it was “just” (which it may have been). And ultimately we cannot avoid the often crude descent into simplification or sentimentality. We cope with horror by cleansing it. The War Graves are one example of this. The gravestones are white and in neat rows with clean readable inscriptions. It doesn’t glorify war, but it purifies it. There is no blood. We symbolise the blood with poppies, the same colour but again clean and pure. The stench of the trenches is replaced by the tranquillity of remembrance, the sadness of bereavement by symbolism. We play the “Last Post” and we reach for the poetic –

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”.

The Great War was barely month old when Binyon penned these lines. These are not really verses for the fallen but for those who survive. It’s almost as if those who perished are the lucky ones for, unlike us, they will not age and weary and die – they are gone already. This is sentimental claptrap of course. There are many stories of the guilt of the survivors “Why me?” – or “Why them?
There is no “glory of war” and three years later that Wilfred Owen told the truth:

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.” 

The “Lie” here was it is “sweet and right” to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to perish in a noble cause. “No” says Owen, it was vile.

And so we remember the fallen and ascribe to them values most did not have. They fell because they were unlucky – victims of happenstance on the battlefield. Some were brave and if we knew of their bravery we posthumously awarded them a medal. Some were scared beyond our understanding – and, shamefully, some of these were shot for cowardice. Most, however, were innocent victims of man’s failure to avoid conflict and of a mistaken belief that we could prevail with just one more push over the top.

It is right to commemorate the fallen at this time but most of them were not heroes and would have been horrified at the thought that they should be. There was a gallows humour to much of the coping:

Up to your waist in water,
Up to your eyes in slush,
Using the kind of language,
That makes the sergeant blush.
Who wouldn't join the army?
That's what we all inquire;
Don't we pity the poor civilian,
Sitting beside the fire.

A hundred years ago today Britain’s leaders took a giant leap into the unknown. The tools of their adventure were first volunteers, then conscripts and then anyone from across the Empire who could be fitted into khaki. Hundreds of thousands of them perished and the Victory that four long years later they won was Pyrrhic. Twenty years later the trains full of troops rolled again. The Bells of Hell were silent for a very short time.

The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.
And the little devils have a sing-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.
Oh death where is they sting-a-ling-a-ling, oh grave thy victory?
The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home