Thursday, December 11, 2014
The death of any soldier causes distress. Distress for loved ones, for comrades and for those that are protected by military action. Yet the individual significance of such an end to a life quickly melts into stone, another name inscribed on a monument by a village green, or becomes another ceramic poppy in a gigantic art installation. War is obscene, made more so by soft handed politicians’ callous and hypocritical motivation in sending the young to experience the horrors of killing and maiming, more often for economic gain than anything resembling a universal morality. Such behaviour is exacerbated further by underwriting, in so-called peace time, acts of torture that defy the Geneva Convention.
There was a period in the nineteen fifties when, because of the hell of the First and Second World Wars, many of the young (I was a teenager) refused to wear poppies. It was not disrespectful towards the dead but represented a deep antipathy towards what was seen as a glorification of something hideous. There was a feeling that too many had died in vain, that much suffering could and should have been avoided and that war was a crime. It was at the same time that I remember some of us refusing to stand for the national anthem in the theatre or cinema (a ritual at the time) because we associated such needless death with a British establishment whose keystone was the queen. I came to realize in those formative years that death rituals involving carriages and cannon, medals and uniforms, black ties and overcoats, hats with veils and shiny shoes, plumed horses and flag covered coffins were a grand illusion, a deception, a marketing campaign to instill in the bereaved, pride in a family member’s death, a form of mass hypnosis persuading them that to fall in battle represented a supreme act of giving, not losing.
The sixties intensified people’s mixed attitudes to pomp and ceremony. White poppies made an appearance. Vietnam saw flowers in gun barrels. Polished wood gave way to body bags. It became harder for politicians to pull the wool over the people’s eyes. A bishop giving blessing to a nuclear submarine provoked outrage.
Yet there is one thing sure about humanity. It swings on a pendulum. The levers of power will always regain control. Today, marketing is again in overdrive. The townsfolk come in their thousands to pay their last respects. The bereaved show gratitude for the momentary majesty afforded their dead sons and daughters.
And the politicians and the powerful, made up for the occasion, stare soulfully into the cameras and then go about their business.