Every year on this day we celebrate Remembrance Day, except that “celebrate” really isn’t the right word. No, it is totally and emphatically the wrong word. I think the right word is “commemorate”. but perhaps it should be said that we “mourn” Remembrance Day. I certainly mourn that we have need of such a day, as well as mourning all those who needlessly died in the name of War.
This is a day that I have always struggled with, ever since learning about the First World War at school, not in History but in English, through the poetry of the time. From the early, somewhat jingoistic flag-waving to the raw, dark and brutal mirroring the effects of war itself. Of course, our English teacher was thorough in explaining the background and even after all these years I still remember the horror I felt. Horror at the monstrous waste of human life and even more at the epic scale of this waste, which defied all reason in my teenage mind. How could responsible adults, supposedly in charge of entire countries have allowed this to happen and how could the people involved go along with being led to slaughter like mere cattle.
Now that I am older and, I hope, wiser, I realise that things are not entirely that simple and sometimes principles and freedoms are worth the fight…aren’t they? Nonetheless, I still despair at the cattle-like tendency that leads man to kill his fellows in ridiculously vast numbers at the behest of a few individuals who do not themselves enter the fray, but simply dictate the fate of others as if they were merely pieces on a chessboard and anyway, it’ll all be over by Christmas, won’t it?
Funnily enough, it almost was. After that famous Christmas Day football match took place in No Man’s Land, neither side had much will to shoot at one another and the powers that were panicked. Hostilities were only resumed after machinations from on high, but just imagine how things could have been if the lack of will to fight had spread (and it was on both sides). With no cannon-fodder to die on command, the war could have just petered out or had to have been fought by those very generals and leaders who blithely condemned thousands to death with a single, stupid and ultimately futile order. Now, there’a a thought. Moreover, if WWI had not run the course it did, WWII would never have happened either, so two generations could have been spared.
My father fought in WWII, at Monte Cassino amongst other places (and I can’t even imagine what hell that must have been) and undoubtedly, along with the rest of his generation, did so because there was no other choice. He died when I was very young, so I never had the opportunity to ask him about it, but I do not believe he or his compatriots ever spoke of the War and I don’t think they felt any pride in what they had done.
Yes, I have mixed feelings about this day – I mourn the memory those who lost or gave their lives for “freedom” or whatever the justification happened to be, but rage against those who thought or made it necessary and made us think it was acceptable and right. The issue I have is the dual standard of society. Our religions say “Thou shalt not kill”, our laws state quite unequivocally that killing people is a crime, punishable by imprisonment or even death. We are told that killing is wrong and we should feel shame and remorse and yet, those same religions, governments and society leaders order us to go forth and kill in their name and to feel pride in having done that. What a curious bypass in reasoning is required to justify that transition from wrong to right and at the same time to see anyone who cannot reconcile themselves to this shift as cowardly or wrong. By all means, mourn the loss of life (I do), but I do not think that any sense of pride has a place here, rather we should feel shame in having participated or allowed it to happen.
Or perhaps, if killing is acceptable in certain circumstances, those who order war should be the ones killed, then maybe we could finally commemorate Remembrance Day with confidence that we have learned from the past about the glory of war:
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
“Dulce et Decorum Est ”
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 I 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.