The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 01 Jul 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Unreal sacrifice

Actors have been walking around the place, dressed as World War One soldiers. Twitter has been full of people saying how marvellously moving it all is and making anodyne, unremarkable comments about sacrifice and all the other sanctimonious dribble that comes out of people’s mouths when people die in agonising ways because old men can’t sort out their differences so have young men kill each other. If they’d wanted to see what death in war looked like, we’d have had corpses scattered around Waterloo station with their heads blown off, but no.

A week after ‘we’ voted for Brexit, we’re confronted with an anniversary that should show us what happens when European nations stop talking and reach for their rifles, but ‘we’ seem to have missed the cue. Tory leadership contender Michael Gove spoke out about the left wing owning the narrative of World War One, but he needn’t have worried. The left wing is in impotent, in-fighting thing, so everyone can get behind these jolly chaps, think pious thoughts and move on.

When the soldiers who survived came home, they returned to a country that was on its arse. Their jobs had gone to people who didn’t fight and limbless ex-soldiers had no means of support, so ended up homeless or scraping along the poverty line begging or selling trinkets. Heaven only knows what life was like for those who came home with conditions such as PTSD. Maybe they ended up in asylums or ended up, like Septimus in ‘Mrs Dalloway,’ committing suicide. We don’t know because, oddly enough, we don’t hear their stories. When they were alive, they probably didn’t look as nice as clean young men in Army drag.

But there’s nothing like an England minded to forget. And it’s forgotten the men who died in screaming agony, or who were obliterated by shell fire or explosions, all because their elders and betters willed it so. It’s forgotten that when nations stop talking, people die. It’s forgotten that when wars end, the physically and mentally maimed have to find a place among us and that the country they came back to probably didn’t give a rat’s arse about most of them or their problems. So you’ve killed a few Germans – what makes you think you can paint houses? And so on.

History has lessons to teach us, if we want to listen. The European Union would have stopped that war in its tracks before anyone so much as left the negotiating table. That, in turn, would mean that the Second World War never happened. The Russian revolution might not have happened, the Nazis would have no reason to exist and Hitler would be an eccentric painter grinding his teeth to powder in an Austrian cafe and ranting about Jews. Still. If we wave flags and are encouraged to get maudlin about very, very abstract concepts, it guarantees that we might want to do it all over again, which is a very, very useful thing to the ruling class.

Were I someone who had come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, I might wonder at this. I’d have watched my friends die or be maimed and might be struggling with injuries myself, of whatever kind. The country I’d come home to would be at peace and its most important concern was, seemingly, whether it had an iPhone 4 or 5 and whether its cappuccino was made with soy or full fat milk. And now it’s going mad for actors in uniforms who are remembering people who have been in their graves for a hundred years while the living, actual soldiers go without. Many are homeless, some can’t work. Once again, the land fit for heroes really isn’t.

Every part of this anniversary sickens me in its mawkishness. The forgetting of what death looks like and pushing it away until it becomes abstraction, the veneration for people who died like cattle for equally abstract reasons and, finally, this, the forgetting of people who won’t need help in a hundred years, but who need help now. We’re mad and giddy for sacrifice, just as long as it isn’t us and as long as the consequences aren’t felt close to home.

Remembering, properly remembering, remembering death in its horror and waste of generally young lives given for nothing, is a political act. Whatever you think about the people who died, it’s all meaningless if you don’t try and build a society that is worthy of their blood. Remembrance without action is as pointless as going to the funeral of someone whose name you don’t know just because you want a sit down. Siegfried Sassoon said that he wanted the comfortable elite burned out of the Palace of Westminster. Legislation prevents me from saying whether I agree, but you may be inclined to draw your own conclusions.

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