by Craig Evans
This year is the centenary of the start of ‘the war to end all war’. Images of flag folding at Camp Bastion to mark the end of Britain’s controversial 13-year-long military campaign in Afghanistan have been broadcast on the news during the past week. It is a reminder of the hopeless idealism of this expression, often attributed to HG Wells, to describe the First World War. Next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday. In the grounds of the Tower of London at the moment, tens of thousands of ceramic poppies are on display to commemorate people who have died serving in the armed forces.
For many, this hundred-year-old ritual of remembrance is sacred. To question its meaning is to express contempt for people who have ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ in the ‘line of duty’. Others believe that remembrance is a custom that encourages a sanitised and glorified view of war and should therefore be scrutinised.
The subject of whether or not war is glorified through the way it is commemorated was discussed on the BBC topical debate programme Sunday Morning Live today. At one stage, the presenter suggested that it might be an issue of language, citing the cenotaph inscription ‘the glorious dead’ and the Queen’s Royal Lancers’ regimental motto ‘death or glory’ as examples of how the word ‘glory’ is attached to conflict.
Along with euphemisms like ‘ultimate sacrifice’, the use of words such as ‘glory’, ‘honour’, ‘pride’, and the like certainly seems to present a version of war as unquestionably noble and morally right. Yet the horror and violence of war is well documented, and there has been a mass of evidence in support of claims against military action deemed illegal and immoral. In 2004, the then secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, himself declared that the US/UK-led 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal.
However, soldiers are not politicians and in the heat of battle they cannot afford to second-guess their orders. For their part, should they not be entitled to derive a sense of honour from their role as providers of security and defenders of freedom? Some would argue that if a war is unjustified then politicians should be held to account, but soldiers who put their lives on the line need to believe in the rightness of what they do, and a concept such as ‘glory’ provides that sense of rightness.
But what about the rest of society? The language of remembrance is used widely at this time of year. The sacrifice of the few for the many; gallant heroes to whom we owe a great debt; achieving glory in battle; lest we forget.
With remembrance, a narrative of courage and honour dictates that we should be selective about what we remember. It is okay to remember the brave warrior fighting the forces of evil of totalitarianism or terrorism. It is far less permissible to remember the terrified conscript who was forced to become cannon-fodder because of empire games played by imperialists.
Words like ‘sacrifice’ encourage us to acknowledge the honourable nature of death in war, but the agent of a sacrifice doesn’t necessarily have to be the person whose life is being given. The word could just as well conjure up an image of a screaming animal being offered for slaughter to a pagan deity. However, in the context of remembrance, with its semantic relation to words like ‘glory’, ‘honour’, and ‘noble’, the implication is that the sacrifice was made willingly.
There seems to me to be a real problem with the language of remembrance. The words popularly used in relation to the commemoration of the war dead present a religious-like version of events that is impervious to historical challenge. Whenever the purpose or meaning of remembrance is questioned, it is frequently met with animosity and accusations of ingratitude. Perhaps this reaction is understandable from people who need to believe that their friends or family members who risk their lives are doing it for a good reason. However, the danger is that by glorifying war through remembrance, lessons from history are not learned, and each new generation repeats the same mistakes as the one before.
The question is: what’s the alternative? How do we acknowledge the contribution of the many men and women who have risked their lives in military service, but without using language that glorifies war? I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the subject in the comments below.