Remember, remember

I’m part of a brand new blogger’s collective: solidarity, brothers. And sisters. We promote each other’s work. I’d put this par at the end, but you’ll see why I haven’t today. Make a mental note:

Check out Angie Mizzell, I wish I had years ago: she’s been on the radio with a wonderful approach to ‘me’ time which includes locking oneself in the toilet; and look at New York State from a serene riverside perspective with The Quotidian Hudson. Finally, fashioning a bed out of red oak without power tools is Yaakov at Artisan’s Call

So often, we think what we are told.

Every year on or around November fifth we are bade remember the date, 406 years ago, when a dodgy Catholic geezer was found in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with a shedload of gunpowder.

Guy Fawkes, fall Guy. Everything about this Catholic plot to rid the country of King James reeks of the pen of the propagandist. The fake name he chose: John Johnson; a supposed tunnel from a nearby house to Parliament, the location of which was never found.

He was caught leaving a cellar stuffed with gunpowder; interrogated until he told tall tales, forced to add a shaky signature to a confession. And subsequently he has hanged, drawn and quartered.

The following year, behold a new custom: the King and Parliament would annually commission a sermon to commemorate the thwarting of such a fiendish and traitorous plot.

And the folklore! We glibly trot out the rhymes accorded to us by a talented set of 17th century spin doctors to remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.

And we burn effigies of a man, knowing that our people have done this for centuries, all because a monarch more than 300 years ago knew his marketing strategies.

We think what we are told. They say jump. We ask how high.

It is as well to be wary of how politicians use conflict. George Orwell illustrated  how war can turn undiscerning heads.

The propaganda of the authorities in 1984 is not subtle. In one scene its hero, Winston, listens to the announcement of a huge military victory.

Orwell writes: “Bad news coming, thought Winston. And sure enough, following on a gory description of the annihilation of a Eurasian army, with stupendous figures of killed and prisoners, came the announcement that, as from next week, the chocolate ration would be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty. ”

There are many reasons to trumpet a conflict.

Retrospect has shown us that the four years of slaughter from 1914-1918 were for little more than a string of grudges and misplaced loyalties.

But as Britain prepared to face a Great War, it had only a small professional army and no conscription, and the government used generalised concepts to grasp the mind of every young man and send them rushing to enlist.

One of the most painfully ironic is a poster of a beautiful woman, her fetching daughter and little son gazing out of a darkened window watching soldiers disappear from view. The caption: “The women of Britain say ‘Go!!'”

The nation embraced concepts of war more to do with jingoism than heroism.

But our war poets told it how it was.

Why did that war, the one which failed to end all wars, give us men so heartily sick that they told the unvarnished truth?

Unlike Tennyson and his Charge of the LIght Brigade, these men stood in the trenches. They watched the men climb up towards possible death. They lived the nightmare.

Wilfred Owen was tutoring in the Pyrenees when war was declared on August 4, 1914.But after he enlisted he was trained and sent to France along with all the others.

He defended a dugout against enemy fire for 50 hours. He was propelled into the air by a shell and landed among the remains of a dear friend.  No wonder he was shaky at parade: they packed him off with shell-shock to an Edinburgh Hospital, where he met Siegfried Sasson, and later Robert Graves, Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells.

It should have been a great beginning.

But now it reminds me of those Arctic summers, where flowers flourish and reproduce hastily because there is so little time, just bright, clarifying light for days which seem endless.

But the dark always comes.

And it did for Owen, just one weary week before the end of the war. He took a shot to the head as he led an attack by a canal. On Armistice Day, as everyone else celebrated, his family were given the news of his death.

His words strip sentiment from war and leave its bones gleaming.

Of a gas victim he saw: “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.”

Translated: “Sweet and fitting it is, to die for one’s country.”

Today, as we remember: let’s not do it because we should, or because of noble concepts, or because someone has  told us to.

Let’s remember because it’s a bloody pointless finality, war.


47 thoughts on “Remember, remember

  1. Such a bloody pointless finality. You are so right. I grieve for the men and women who are returning home in the coming months to the end of their military service and no job because of the endless propaganda of stupid decisions by our leaders on both sides of the aisle.

    1. What gets me, Andra, is that no amount of honouring can bring these men back: and even more unbearable, nothing can undo the inhuman suffering of their last days and hours. I look at Felix and feel like weeping.

  2. Words never truer, Kate, we should remember too that the date of Armistice Day was chosen weeks later than it could have been. Many extra thousands needlessly lost their lives… not knowing a cease fire was agreed… and that politicians safe in their hidey holes, had decided the precise time. It maketh me sick to think on it… Would that Generals and Politicians had to fight their own damned wars, then we’d see how long they lasted.. xPenx

    1. That war was particularly bad for pointless demands, wasn’t it, Pen? I can see the point of the second world war all right, we’d all be under a very different regime right now had w not fought with every young life we had. But the first world war: there was a lot of futility.

  3. I believe, Kate, you and I are on the same page, and with many others. I hadn’t read that Owen poem, thanks for posting it… I am too full – with reading – to say more

  4. “Dulce et decorum” was the start for me of my horror of war. I was quite young when I found a copy and asked about it, and about the writer. Back then you couldn’t just google him, so it took a while in the library to find out. What a waste, a man who could evoke such emotion, who may have later inspired beauty, truth and kindness, gone in a bullet!

    A few years later I was read a poem about Japanese fishermen near the atomic blast. Backs to the blast the patternd of their shirts etched into their backs, and then their slow painful deaths.

    Why oh why can’t we all be rational, limit population size and conflict. Stop being so greedy. Stop wasting the lives of the young in battles, rather than celebrating their vitality in dance?

    1. Futile, isn’t it, Sidey. But there’s always evil in the world somewhere. I believe we had to fight to stop the Nazis: sometimes great evil needs someone to stand up to it. But to die for a string of treaties: as you say, all those years of dancing denied them. You remind me of that wonderful series, A Dance To The Music Of Time.

  5. I’m reading this very late in my evening…it’s 11:45 pm, 11-11-11. I don’t feel there is anything more to add to the beautiful list of thoughtful responses you’ve collected all day…but I had to at least tell you how much I appreciated this focus. We are living in sobering times…and it’s my belief that blogging and connecting with others through the unique character of social networking is one way many of us are coping with the reality that as the world gets smaller, we aren’t any better at living together. We are finding our own creative way to create small pockets of solidarity. Really well done, Kate. Thank you. Debra

  6. It’s a very sad part of our world’s history, sadder still that the powers that be still dont seem to be learning any lessons, and that some parts of human nature still persists in being evil

  7. It’s very sad that those in power don’t see faces and families and potential when they look at the troops being sent off to war. It’s much harder to say to someone, “Die for this, kill for this” when they are a person in your eyes rather than an expendable commodity. In fact, I guess all of us could try to see each other a little more clearly. I wonder if we’ll ever reach a point when we don’t wage war. It’s probably a long way off, evolution is slow. Powerful post.

  8. To die for a string of treaties…put like that, it’s pointless. But to die defending the life of a friend? Propaganda or the right thing to do?

    An excellent post, Kate.

    1. Oooh, Tilly, you know that’s true. Although that friend might not have been there for the string of treaties….it”s why I think war is sometimes necessary. But for our victory in the second world war, we’d be in a very different regime to the one we enjoy today.

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