Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Remembrance

I'm late to the party with this, mostly because I get my news second hand these days (I stopped paying attention when it became clear the game was over and we live in a elected dictatorship where the only things that change are the faces, not the policies). Putting my bitter, cynical shell aside for the moment (if I can, I mean it's really tasty); when I found out about this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24440923, through Charles Stross' site I felt I should say something (honestly, I think we should).

It seem fairly typical of our Prime Minister that he would try to co-opt the centenary of the First World War for his own ends (and why are we celebrating the start, should we not mark the end instead?). It fits with so much of what he's done during his tenure of the position; from the bread and circuses of the Diamond Jubilee and the Royal Wedding to the historical stumble that put Britain in a supporting role during World War 2 during a visit to the USA, this is a man who favours a sideshow and has no grasp of history.

I wouldn't dispute that remembrance is important, but the idea of celebrating the war in any form is one I find bizarre, given the cost in human lives. In fact I'd say that to even use the word is disrespectful and the idea that the Great War was in someway linked to freedom and democracy (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/08/poppy-last-time-remembrance-harry-leslie-smith) one that is just damn insulting, unless its to say 'yeah thanks to this we got some' even if that was more a reaction to the Russian Revolution than the war itself. This is an event that was a watershed moment for the world, the beginning of the end of Europe's imperial dreams, and the rise of the USA into some sort of prominence. In many ways those four years were the most important in the entire 20th Century. Without them we would probably live in a world the resembled that of the Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, abandoned by scientific development and lost to democracy. Without them most of Europe would be ruled by tin pot hereditary dictatorships and Britain would never have become a true democracy. It's absolutely right that we take a moment to reflect on that and on the lives lost in this most inane and horrific of wars, and why things have scarcely got better a century on.

On another level, for the British it was a crumbling of the stiff upper lip and the end of the Victorian certainties that had so defined their worlds. It was the loss of confidence that being British meant something; economically and politically it left the empire spent. The war's legacy left a long shadow in the form of shell shock and injured men. Red poppies replaced white feathers, the last hurrah of confidence - 'it will all be over by Christmas' - was a view espoused by a population that was out of step with technology; even the military didn't understand the new face of war (echoes of that resound even now). Field Marshal Haig tried to use cavalry on the fields of northern France: they were cut to ribbons by maxim guns. In this sense it feels, to me, like trotting out a huge celebration would not only be inappropriate but an attempt to resurrect something that's been dead a century. There's a lot of that about at the moment, a real sense of 'the rich man in his parlour, the poor man at his gate'. It sticks in my craw frankly, is this what our ancestors fought for?

Remembrance Day's meaning has changed for me over the past few years. I used to wear a red poppy but in recent years I've started to buy white ones instead. To me the red poppy has become a jingoistic symbol; something that glorifies the war rather than remembers the damage it wrought and the lives it shattered both in Britain and across the Commonwealth (not to mention in France, America, Germany, Austria... you get the idea). The photo of the Royal British Legion's Poppy Day in Manchester shows a girl in a tee shirt with 'future soldier' on it, which seems a far cry from the 'War to End All Wars' that I grew up with.http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/news-events/news/poppy-appeal/manchester-celebrates-fundraising-success-for-our-armed-forces. I'm uncomfortable with the sentiment, it implies we've given up on the idea of not going to war, even though there's nobody to really threaten us (outside of terrorists and, frankly armies and wars seem to breed more not fewer of those), which in turn implies that like TV or video games, war has become another distraction, another way to keep the population quiet. That isn't anything new of course, arguably the USA has been doing it since World War 2 ended and its a trick that goes back to the Ancient World. Perhaps its just that a century is a long time and the people who fought in it are largely dead; its been repurposed for a new age: as a lodestone of national identity in a society where globalised capitalism is rapidly rendering such things meaningless.