Commemorating a centenary or forgetting the pity of war?

By Jill Segger
November 10, 2018

How a war ends is as important as the manner of its beginning. It is in that ending that injustice and hatred may be sown. It is also the arena in which the rituals of the victors may build a national narrative with the power to misuse memory and thus to obscure truth.

No combatants from the First World War are alive today and only a very small number who lived through it still remain. The second war of the 20th century is also beginning to pass from living memory. As this happens, the number of voices with the ability to hold the official versions to account dwindles. Before direct experience and living memory are entirely gone – as they soon will be – we must turn to education, to a willingness to learn, to reflection and the exercise of imaginative empathy. This takes time and moral acuity. Without it, we will be little more than day-trippers to history, obedient to the call of uncertain, nostalgic, bugles. The field will be left open to legend makers and to the interests of power – a power with its foundations in the arms trade, a foreign policy deficient in ethical discernment and the carefully crafted militarisation of public opinion.

Modern remembrance ceremonies are still choreographed around the 1914-18 war. There are obvious reasons for this. The soldier poets are part of our cultural currency. The pity and tragedy of 15-year-old boys who lied about their age to get to the front. The harrowing innocence of young men who left farmers’ fields, provincial shop-counters and factory gates to form Pals Battalions and who were slaughtered in the static, squalid futility of trench warfare. These things pull at our emotions. And of equal significance is the fact that all this happened a long time ago in a world very far from our own experience. The danger that it will become a sepia-tinted artefact with little to teach us in a world of professional armies, drone warfare and asymmetric conflict, is increasing by the year.

The centenary of the Armistice is an opportunity to revisit and perhaps remake our ideas about remembrance and its relationship to what – ostensibly – we are remembering: war and the victims of war.

In the 1914 -18 war, the ratio of military to civilian casualties was around 80 per cent to 20 per cent respectively. In the 1939-1945 war, it was 50 per cent in both categories. In modern warfare, the ratio is around five per cent military to 95 per cent civilians. If we do not reflect this in remembrance, we conceal the realities of suffering and of the resentments and hatreds which cascade through the generations.

If, in remembering only some of those whose lives were taken, we lose sight of the fact that history shows each war to contain the seeds of the next, we will show ourselves to have learned nothing. If we conflate remembrance solely with the military and its own particular customs of pageantry, we betray the millions in all countries who bore arms and the millions who did not. We have a responsibility beyond participating in familiar rituals and consoling words. It is a responsibility not only of sorrow but of repentance and a resolve to change. Its choreography must revisit that motto of the immediate post-1918 years: ‘Never again’. To truly understand what that means will be painful.

In his play The History Boys, Alan Bennett gives these words to a young school master, hired to coach the sixth-form historians for Oxbridge entrance: “It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember...there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”.


© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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