Monday, 10 November 2014
Remembrance of things past - and present.
That yesterday's news bulletins first recorded that the Queen had laid a wreath to commemorate the sacrifices of those of Britain and the Commonwealth who had fought to end wars and then went on to tell us that the US had successfully bombed a convoy and perhaps killed a senior Islamic State leader is a sad reminder that, like the Bourbons, we have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.
One after another the commentators tell us that, because this is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War, this year's ceremonies (and presumably the next four) have a special poignancy. Sadly, however, in Britain they continue to be essentially exercises in a backward-looking nationalism which sentimentalise and sanitise the real nature of war, whilst ignoring the cause of war, which is a failure of politics.
In Jonathan Jones's opinion the sea of 886 246 ceramic poppies, each representing a "British" death, in the moat surrounding the Tower of London, "nurtures the world view of UKIP." I find it difficult to avoid the view that the stereotypical ceremonies, with their marching bands, military commands, bugles and flaunted medals do something similar.
Surely this poignant anniversary should be used to broaden and deepen our understanding of wars, their causes and their tragic consequences. Should we not also mourn the losses of all the combatant nations? The numbers from the Great War tell a humbling story. The principal ones were, in round figures (apologies for that) at a minimum:
Germany: 1 800 000
Russia: 1 700 000
France: 1 350 000
Austro-Hungary: 1 300 000
Britain and Commonwealth: 900 000
Turkey: 325 000
United States: 116 000
Figures for the Second World War are equally horrifying and illustrate in particular, and again, the massive sacrifice made by the Russians.
It was a noted improvement to see and hear a German youth take part in the British Legion's shockingly misnamed "Festival" of Remembrance in the Albert Hall on Saturday evening. Surely there is cope for extending participation to create a truly international event.
We could extend the flower symbolism to include the remembrance flowers of other nations. For France it is the cornflower (le bleuet), for Germany I believe the marguerite, or perhaps the forget-me-not (my Google researches have not been very productive: perhaps someone can adjudicate on that and add to the list). Ubiquitous as the poppy is for "British" remembrance, I'm not so sure it conveys the appropriate message. The final stanza of John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" on which its use is based, begins:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
which seems to be a call for continued belligerence.
Redirecting our remembrance in these significant centenary years to exploring ways of avoiding further wars, and resolving our difference through politics and diplomacy would better bring about the peace for the souls of the sacrificed which McCrae calls for in his final lines:
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Alas instead of making a positive contribution to the EU, founded to avert a future European catastrophe, our politicians use the vocabulary of war to seek "victory" over each petty dispute, and threaten, like petulant schoolboys, to take our bat home if the "the enemy" does not accede to our every whim. And our red-top press cheers them on.
If you want to make a gesture in a more constructive direction, White Poppies are available from the Peace Pledge Union, I Peace Passage, London N7 0BT, or http://www.ppu.org.uk/whitepoppy/