Tuesday, 20 July 2010
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
The memorial to the most shameful former secret of WWI at the National Memorial Arboretum
The re-interment of the last unknown one of 250 Australian and British WWI soldiers in the new CWGC cemetery at Fromelles prompted mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, the knowledge that men who died for their countries were finally being given a dignified permanent resting place, was a positive thought, and one that the establishment and even the BBC in its recently adopted mawkish Dianification* of military casualties wanted the general public to feel. To feel, mind, not to think.
Because on the other hand, I thought "A New Cemetery For A New Century", the title of the exhibition at the IWM, was a bit Powerpointy. In addition, the constant repetition that the soldiers "went over the top even though they knew they would probably be killed", even though it was true made me uneasy. They went over the top because society had trained them to obey their superiors, because military training had reinforced that, and because they knew the full force of military law would be brought down on them if they refused an order on grounds of self-preservation. Remember, the Battle of Fromelles was a diversion from the Battle of the Somme in 1916, so those British soldiers, Australia never had conscription, wouldn't except in very small numbers, have been from the pre-war Regular Army or the volunteers (the "Pals")of the first few months of the war. They would have been conscripts. The First World War actually was a major reverse in a broad historical trend of individual freedom against the state dating from habeus corpus, the rights of juries, the Bill of Rights, the expansion of the electorate, trade union legislation, etc. With the Military Service Act of January 1916, free Englishmen reverted to serfs bound to their liege lord's bidding. And with the precedent established, the State has never let go its power over individuals. National Service was scrapped merely to save money and the Government has extended its power over us in other ways. War cemeteries are a way for the State to assuage its guilt for its crass errors and attenuate the anger of the bereaved, to build another layer of military myth of the glamour and noble sacrifice of war (the power to use violence being a fiercely protected sole prerogative of the State) to maintain the supply of willing recruits, and also a statement that Your Country Owns You, Even In Death. Think of President Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." should sent a shiver down the spine of everyone.
Because, according to the Daily Mail, this is how a proud State treats its soldiers even after nine years fighting in Afghanistan. "Nothing but the best for "Our Boys", whatever they need," is the cry from the Despatch Box. Snafu is the reality. Who should we be angry with? The Politicians? The Top Brass? Or ourselves for going along with the whole bloody charade?
* Where was the BBC when soldiers' coffins were returned from Northern Ireland as cargo on scheduled airline flights?