The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 12 Nov 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Remembering to forget

Did you keep the two minutes’ silence on the 11th? Will you be keeping it tomorrow, on Armistice Sunday? What will you be thinking about? Mainstream society has some suggestions. It’d like you to think about vague, abstract things, like sacrifice and some kind of clear-eyed nobility, while people on social media share weirdly idyllic pictures of people in First World War drag marching through a field of poppies, ethereally transparent, while watched by a horse and, in one example I’ve seen, by an Alsatian which wasn’t quite the right scale and seemed to be looming over scene like a mascot on growth hormones.

The sudden affection for remembrance is of a piece with the election of Trump and a society which considers Nigel Farage, the multiply unelected leader of UKIP, as some kind of world statesman rather than just a pub fascist. We are afraid of the future and so we take refuge in idiots shouting certainties and in trite homilies to the past. Neither could possibly tolerate reasoned enquiry for more than five minutes by someone with an intelligence quotient higher than gazpacho, but then that isn’t, seemingly, what people want. They want to be told comforting things and, in the context of remembrance, this means that war really doesn’t have much of a place.

At first glance, this may seem strange. War is a necessary precursor to remembrance, as it’s the thing which gives us cause to remember in the first place, but modern society has pulled the two apart in the process of tidying things away. In war, people die brutally, with their guts blown open or balls shot away, slowly bleeding to death and wondering why, or else they’re simply blown apart in an instant, human offal scattered to the four winds, unthinkingly and unknowingly. They seldom get shot, cleanly, through the heart, having time to shout ‘mother’ before falling over and having a nice, orderly burial. After one barrage in on war or another, the only way they could vaguely guess at how many people had been there by counting the number of spines on the ground.

Not that you’ll see any of this in the coverage, of course, because it’s all to real. If you think, and I mean, really think about what it is to die in a war, you’d be overwhelmed by pity and a sense that almost nothing was worth young men being herded to the sound of guns by older men who could find no other way to sort out their problems than by having people kill each other. And from that, you may start to ask questions about why war is seen as an instrument of government policy and of no more moral import than hefting two bags of corpses and deciding which is heavier. You may decide that it’s all a squalid waste of life and that official narratives are designed to allow it to happen again and again. I couldn’t comment.

Or rather, I could, because I’m appalled by what remembrance has become. In Crawley town centre, you can do a ‘remembrance walk’ through one of the parks and reflect on the names of the dead. At a service station, there is a banner encouraging people to remember the centenary of the battle of the Somme as though it was a difficult football match and something which had no wider political significance than a man kicking a ball into a goal. You’re not, say, invited to consider the words of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, who talked about these men dying ‘as cattle,’ a reference which resounds through most war poetry. These men weren’t remembering in the right way, you see. They were remembering the slaughter and the carnage, because they were in the middle of it, watching the waste. They weren’t coming along a hundred years later with a duster and some polish and making all the nastiness go away.

For everyone safely dead, there were others who came back with smashed faces, bodies and minds for whom life would never be the same again and who don’t fit into cosy narratives. The people who fought in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq are homeless on the streets or else beating their partners and doing a range of other appalling things because they’ve been sent beyond the point at which a human being can still function and call himself a human being. If you had been in up the small hours, sponging what was left of your friend out of your body armour or closed your eyes and saw corpses, perhaps you’d be one of them, made incoherent by rage and anger and forgotten in favour of the people who stare glumly out of black and white photographs, long dead and silent.

Splendid human beings like Michael Gove call this the ‘Blackadder version’ of history, as though there’s another which is more true. There isn’t. The only alternative is what we have now – plastic poppies tied to lamp posts, stalls in public squares where you can get ever bigger poppies to show just how much you bloody care, just how much you really, really remember, when of course what you’re saying is how much you don’t want to think about the bad stuff, but the bastard abstract, pulled kicking from its context. Such is my revulsion at this that 2016 is the first year I haven’t worn a poppy because I realise that it’s all got too much, it’s all got tainted by the Brexiters and their huge sexual kink for the past for when white men were sovereign and Britannia ruled the waves, and all that jazz.

Perhaps in ten or twenty years time, we’ll have huge foam poppies in public squares that you have to dry hump in order to prove just how much you care about Our Sacred Heroes, and poppy whips so you can beat yourself to orgasm while remembering the things you’re told to remember. In the meantime, people will go on dying for causes that were never, ever just, for all that ‘public men,’ in the words of Yeats, will them otherwise. Let’s end this with words from Siegfried Sassoon, who saw it all and described it in horrifically bald detail for later generations to ignore. If you’re going to remember, remember this, while you’re still allowed to:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

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