Remembrance Day 2009
It is a day to remember those who served, those who fought, those who gave their lives. But it is also a day to remember the horror of war. While many of those who served did so nobly, war itself is not noble, even if it is somehow justifiable, and undeniably necessary, as was World War II.
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 not kid ourselves. Let us not forget that today is not a day to celebrate war, or to romanticize it.
The poem often recited on Remembrance Day is John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields." It is a beautiful poem. McCrae was a field surgeon, then the head of a Canadian hospital in northern France. He died in 1918, the victim of pneumonia, a casualty, in a way, of war.
Another casualty was Wilfred Owen, perhaps the greatest of the Great War poets. He was killed at the Battle of the Sambre on November 4, 1918 -- just a week before Armistice Day, the end of the war. This is one of his finest poems, "Dulce et Decorum Est":
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
It is a lie, that is, that it is sweet and right to die for your country. That may not be the sentiment one hears on Remembrance Day, when what is stressed is the opposite, the noble sacrifice of those who served, but it is a more accurate one. This is not to diminish that sacrifice, without which we would not be what we are today, it is just to note that the bitter truth about war mustn't be forgotten.