Sunday, November 13, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 5

I haven't written as much as I'd hoped I would when I started this series off. That, in its own way, is disappointing. Whilst I have devoted a lot of time and thought towards what remembrance really means, how society as a whole is shaped by these rituals, and think about my own personal attitudes to war, I haven't been able to give them the rigorous checking that I'd intended. Partly, that's because remembrance of war is a very troubling subject.

A tour of the battlefields of the Great War is one of the most affecting experiences imaginable, because there seems something so senseless about it. Why were so many young men, in the prime of their life, sent to their deaths in mass slaughter? The tactics and attitudes of Field Marshal Haig make me angry just thinking about them. The physical experience of the war looms large; in some areas trenches remain preserved; right along the Western Front farmers still turn up shells when ploughing their fields. The sheer scale and lunacy of the slaughter makes lines like those of Wilfred Owen (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), or even more trite lines, like "Never Again", seem all the more powerful.

Of course, part of the senselessness of the slaughter of WW1 comes from the fact that the world has changed so much since then. Thankfully, we live in an age when we are highly unlikely to be called upon to die for our country. Yet if we were asked to respond on the scale of 1914, would we? Would our generation accept that challenge? I think the chances are that we wouldn't. National sentiment may play an important role when England win the Ashes, or when the World Cup shows its head. Yet for all the importance that we may place on national identity, would we consider dying to be our earnest and solemn duty for the motherland?

There are dangers to taking up the idea that war is always wrong. Always bad, maybe, but most definitely not always wrong. To hear some pacifists speak, you would believe that if we made our behaviour beond reproach, then nothing could ever, nothing would ever go wrong. Diplomacy and foreign affairs, however, are not a one-way conversation. We can't just go away, meditate, and be thoroughly self-improved. We have to respond to changing stimuli right around us - and while that happens, there is always going to be the need for the threat of force. Taking the moral high ground doesn't help you when someone is stood in front of you with a gun, or, as is more likely in this world, when some dictator has control of some nerve agent and wants to kill you with it.

War, then, has to be justified in certain circumstances. So, whilst we shouldn't ever forget how terrible war is, what privations and sufferings it causes, we have to remember there are things that are worth dying for. There are causes which are so important that we shouldn't back down in the name of compromise or pacifism.

Of course, for all this, the second of my aims when I started this a couple of weeks ago was also unfulfilled. I still haven't clarified many of my thoughts on the subject; for all that I can express sheer certainty at one moment, the next I will backtrack from my bullishness. That is, on all except one subject. Observance of Remembrance Day, the two-minute silence, the wearing of a poppy, are all vital rituals. They remind us of our heritage, and serve as a focus when we think about where we might be going.

Above all, we should stop and give a thought for all those who have been affected by war. Not just those who gave the ultimate sacrifice; who died in a corner of a foreign field that previously meant nothing to them to protect their loved ones, their freedoms, their way of life. For those who survived; scarred by the memories of what they had seen, many scarred physically. For those who had to bear the pangs of loss; a husband who never came back, a son, or many sons, pre-deceasing their parents. Those who lost their homes and everything they owned in a bombing raid. Indeed, the whole societies that have had to carry close, personal association with war in a way they would never have asked, and yet they have just grinned and borne it.

Where war is concerned, there aren't easy answers. But we should take the time to consider the questions anyway. Lest we forget.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and there was no sea. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away.”

He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” He said, “Write, for these words of God are faithful and true.” He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes, I will give him these things. I will be his God, and he will be my son.