Lest We Forget
Today I wanted to write about war. It seems fitting, and I don't subscribe to the view that everything on my blog should be uplifting all of the time, as much as I may want that to be the case. If we are endlessly positive then we are dishonest about the human experience, I feel; we desire to create good by speaking of it, but if words are not coupled with action they decrease in value, and it is sometimes only in contemplating the bad as well that we find the strength of motivation to act.
Today as my office joined in the minute's silence, I remembered the visit years ago that I made to the cemetary at Ypres. I was eighteen years old on a sixth form history trip and I'd been studying war poetry for weeks, but it was only stood amongst those endless rows of bright white headstones that I felt its reality for the first time. Tonight I dug out my old diaries, and found the entry for the Ypres visit. I was surprised, reading my teenage self trying to process what I thought and understood of what I had seen, to see how much I still identify with those thoughts. Here is part of what I wrote:
Thursday 26th October 2006 - Ypres Reservoir Cemetery
It is difficult to express the feelings and impressions of this visit. The beautiful simplicity of the cemetery, its rows of white graves - white, for purity, but also for coldness - have a uniformity which fits ironically with that under which these men fell. Uniform was evidently all that many could be identified by, but some did not even have that distinction, and are simply named:
'A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR KNOWN UNTO GOD'
And they are. The youngest soldier anyone found there was 16. The oldest I saw was 47, and I caught myself for the briefest moment thinking that was somehow acceptable, simply because it was so much older than the innumerable teenagers and twenty-somethings cut down in the spring and summer of life. But even if such 47-year-olds were in the autumn of their lives, an analogy brought home by the confetti of bronzed leaves wistfully sweeping the immaculate lawns, it should not have been their time. Autumn does not contain the promise of spring, or the blazing glory of summer, but it should be a time of harvest. And those men had lived through promise and glory but not lived to reap the harvest - their golden years were snatched.
Seeing the graves of those who did die reminded me of the even greater number of those who survived, but whose lives were interrupted and cruelly twisted by the war. Enthusiasts, idealists and scholars returned listless, disillusioned, and empty. As the author of 'All Quiet of Western Front' put it, they were a lost generation; the war had ruined them for everything.
The strangest thing about war is that, no matter how much we decry it as horrific and unnecessary, when it happens it comes with a fatalistic inevitability, and mankind looks on apparently helpless. I read in the museum today a Mark Twain quote which ran:
'Every intelligent person in the world could see that disaster was imminent, and no one had any idea how to prevent it.'
But war is not merely a spectre of the past, or a shadow on today, but a very real threat looming over our future. I say this without any desire to be melodramatic; I only write what I observe. I have observed the absurdity of war, and the curious human passion which can both strive for it and rage against it within the same soul, and the desperation and madness which spring out of this internal warring to infect not only those already scarred by first-hand experience, but a vast global generation which has grown up proclaiming peace, and unable to escape the clutches of conflict.
It would be all too easy perhaps to continue to view war in this abstract way - as a great beast in whose hands we are but pawns; or as a storm which engulfs us; or, as some philosophers have theorised, an inescapable expression of the nature of man, fundamental and essential to humankind's development as a species. Brutality is an essence which our race has not yet refined away; 'survival of the fittest' springs to mind.
Perhaps war contains elements of all these things, but of the three I feel the last is closest to the truth, inasmuch as the fact remains that mankind is selfish, and brutality springs (indirectly) out of egocentricity. It is our nature, though I don't believe it was originally, and we cannot escape what we are. Where there is one who will not hate, another will. Where there is one who will not fight, another will. Where there is one who does not seek his own, or seek to use power and the submission of others to his own end, another will. Where there is truth, and purity, there will be deception, and perversion - Wilfred Own called 'dulce et decorum est pro patri mori', the 'great lie' - thus shall it be until the very end, for such is the way of the world.
I was clearly too melancholy to consider the possibility that humanity is capable of improving on its nature, but truthfully I think that ego which I had identified as a feeder of brutality is a fearsome obstacle. The dominance of ego prevents community-minded thinking; it creates an us-and-them or me-and-them culture; when given power it stretches philosophies to incorporate its selfishness. When I wrote about Ypres I was not condemning the war dead and survivors, and nor am I now - the sacrificial nature of those who are willing to fight is one of the most noble human qualities, but also the saddest, because it shouldn't be necessary. The political and economic structures which promote and rely upon war are more to blame, and those who feed them without thought of consequences.
The Bodleian library chose yesterday to announce the acquisition of the only known copy of a Poetical Essay by Percy Bysshe Shelley, written when he was a student of eighteen, in which he attacked the dysfunctional political institutions of the day and decried the global impact of war. I can't imagine that the date, just before Armistice Day, was accidental. The relevance of its subject matter to today's society, 200 years on, seems to me to show that we are facing the same human situation, just in a different age. I include an extract for you to decide:
'Are we then sunk so deep in darkest gloom,
That selfish pride can virtue's garb assume?
Does real greatness in false splendour live?
When narrow views the futile mind deceive,
When thirst of wealth, or frantic rage for fame,
Lights for awhile self-interest's little flame,
When legal murders swell the lists of pride:
When glory's views the titled idiot guide,
Then will oppression's iron influence show
The great man's comfort as the poor man's woe.'
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'An Essay on the Existing State of Things'