Glory and war: some thoughts on the language of remembrance

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.

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4 comments

  1. This was a post that deserves a reply – especially on a day when some are finally putting away their poppies for another year and laying to rest their ‘Remembrance’. My view on ‘Remebrance’ is that it offers an arena of religious experience in a largely secular society. Given that a diminishing number of people in Britain subscribe to an official religion,many look for occasions that may satisfy the emotional need for ‘religion’- ‘Remembrance’ provides this role but in secular version of ritual – involving symbolic leaders, the Queen the PM etc. at the Cenotaph. Of course this is superficially secular but truly a religious ritual.

    Consider some of the expressions that Craig notes: “For many, this hundred-year-old ritual of remembrance is sacred”; ‘ultimate sacrifice’,‘the glorious dead’ – are these not reminiscent of another sacred individual who was sacrificed on a cross? May it perhaps be the case that some people need ‘mythic thinking’ – and that Remembrance is a permitted form of mythic thinking because it is not part of Christianity or any other official religion? Perhaps those who feel awkward about ‘Remembrance Sunday’ are also those who feel awkward about religion in general?

    So in answer to Craig’s question ‘What is the alternative?’ Initially I would respond: do we need one, since it seems some ‘need’ a secular religion? However, perhaps one alternative for such people would be to adopt an actual religion (if they do not already have one)?

    Alternatively, we should also note the framework of Remembrance is retrospective – 100 years back in time – and although one aspect of Remembrance that is prospective in so far as we learn a Lesson from History – that war is dangerous – another prospective approach might be to develop religious thinking and myth about the future rather than about the past.

    In practice this would mean creating a mythic framework that addresses the very real and immanent threats of environmental destruction. This might involve a type of Cenotaph for how the planet might look in 100 year time – unless actions are taken to protect nature and the physical elements we live within? We might wear a poppy of the future: I wonder what that might look like?

    1. Thank you for your comment Jonathan. I think it highlights an interesting debate to be had about how the role of religion in people’s lives is measured. Often, measures such as diminishing church attendance are used as evidence for an increasingly secular society. However, the ’emotional need for religion’, as you put it, one that is suggested by the language of remembrance, may be far more widespread than statisticians can account for. This is especially apparent in people’s tendency towards ‘mythic thinking’ when it comes to notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. An obvious example would be the common view of paedophiles as ‘evil’ or ‘monsters’, which I guess provides an emotional outlet where reason alone may seem insufficient. Of course, such ‘mythic thinking’ fails to address what is a societal problem. This also applies to suicide bombers or Isis executioners: there is the option to see such people as having mental or personality disorders, although many characterisations seem to use the language of religion (i.e. notions of good and evil). At some level, this gives a certain amount of legitimacy to the view that the world is governed by mythical moral forces – a world in which people do not have to take responsibility for their individual actions. (I guess my thoughts here drift from remembrance to war as the two are inherently connected, and while the ‘mythic thinking’ of one may provide solace, the ‘mythic thinking’ of the other may be what’s caused such solace to be needed in the first place).

      I am most intrigued by your suggestion for a ‘prospective’ remembrance – the human race could definitely do with obsessing as much about the future as it does about the past.

  2. Nice piece, Craig, though I come to it rather late. Picking up on your comments about sacrifice: to be understood in a politically and culturally acceptable way, it needs to be understood as “self-sacrifice”. That would remove the pagan connotations of animal sacrifice, and links it to the pervasive Christian idea of Jesus’ death as a voluntary death offering redemption. But “self-sacrifice” never appears on 1914-18 war monuments. I guess that’s because most people at the time knew that the sacrifice of most soldiers was anything but self-motivated and voluntary, and that particularly after the hopeless Somme offensive of July 1916 many believed that the soldiers had (passive!) been sacrificed by agents with their own agenda, not aligned with that of many of the Tommies.

    If you haven’t seen it already, you may find this CDA book interesting:

    Abousnnouga, Gill, and David Machin (2013) The language of war monuments. London: Bloomsbury (Advances in Semiotics).

    1. Thanks for your comment Richard (sorry for the delayed reply – such are the demands of pre-Christmas coursework!).

      The above discussion presents a notion of sacrifice, as it relates to warfare in the modern era, that is always retrospective. The absence of ‘self-sacrifice’, then, on war monuments, suggests a shift in how the language of religion shapes a view of the past. But I wonder how much a willingness for self-sacrifice existed in the hearts of those who enlisted. Before conscription, it is possible to argue that the esprit de corps of the pal battalions was fused with a sense of duty to a Christian country. Could it be that the notion of ‘duty’ experienced by career soldiers and the pal battalions is closely linked to sacrifice, perhaps as part of a collective redemption? In this way, the dropping of the ‘self’ prefix might be attributed to emphasis on the group rather than the individual.

      The link between a sense of ‘duty’ in the present and a retrospective view of ‘sacrifice’ is probably what makes it possible to reconcile feelings of loss with a sense of meaning, one that is expressed by war monuments. Duty itself is quite an interesting concept. While it may indicate personal agency (having a sense of duty), it can also refer to an ideal against which the moral character of a person is judged (you must do your duty; at least he did his duty). In this way, perhaps sacrifice in the context of war was never about the individual motivations of the self, but about conforming to an expected ideal. For those who went unwillingly into battle (conscripts; the poor and unemployed), this means that sacrifice can be viewed not as something they gave, but something that they were expected to give.

      Thanks for the book recommendation!

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