Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day / Veterans Day 2013

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(This is a reprint of the post I've put up the last couple of years, but with a different Great War poem. Two years ago, it was the justifiably famous "Break of Day in the Trenches" by Isaac Rosenberg, one of the greatest of all war poems (of any war, not just WWI). Last year it was "Dead Man's Dump," a remarkable portrait of the brutality of war, also by Rosenberg. Going back further, to 2009, I went with Wilfred Owen's powerfully anti-jingoist "Dulce et Decorum Est." Today I turn to Siegfried Sassoon, whose wonderful poetry I have previously featured.)

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 is "Survivors" by Siegfried Sassoon, written at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland (where he met Owen) in October 1917. A decorated soldier, having received the Military Cross in July 1916, Sassoon had understandably turned firmly against the war by then, and this short and deeply moving poem reflects his unwavering contempt for the still-raging war:

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're "longing to go out again,"--
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,--
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

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