Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day / Veterans Day 2011

Today is a day to remember those who served, those who fought, those who gave their lives. But it is also -- and we must not lose sight of this -- a day to remember the horror of war. While many of those who served did so nobly, war itself is not noble, even when somehow justifiable, and undeniably necessary, as was World War II.

Even if we should remember today not just the so-called "Greatest Generation" (a made-up American concept/conceit) that fought that war but also the countless innocent civilians who suffered and died (in that war as in all wars), as well as the incredible devastation of that war, not just on "our" side but on "their" side as well, from Dresden to Hiroshima. There may be ideals of good and evil, but there is an awful lot in between.

But World War I, the "Great War," the specific war this day commemorates? That was a pointless, generation-destroying abomination that resulted in nothing but another war, a continuation of the war, 20 years later. It was a war of dying empires, heavily militarized after a century of relative peace following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, the generals and their political masters moving pieces around on their gameboard, the lines moving a bit this way, a bit that way, all for some greater glory that existed only in their illusions and delusions, while thousands upon thousands were dying for nothing at all on the fields and in the trenches. Think of the Battle of the Somme, one of the Great War's key turning points, with a death toll over a million. It was one of the worst, but it was also one of many such devastations. It is impossible, I think, to come fully to terms with such horror.

Let us, then, think not of the usual red poppy but of the white one, which symbolizes peace (and not so much military valour and certainly not the "nobility" of war).

Here, one of the greatest of the Great War poems, is the very moving "Break of Day in the Trenches" by Isaac Rosenberg, a somewhat lesser-known Great War poet (compared to the likes of Owen or Sassoon) but still a very fine one:

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old Druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems, odd thing, you grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurl'd through still heavens?
What quaver -- what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping,
But mine in my ear is safe --
Just a little white with the dust.

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  • Rosenberg's other work isn't as well known, but that one is justly famous. Alas that WWI is not better remembered.

    By Blogger Batocchio, at 2:11 AM  

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