Blessed are the Warmakers
Glen Newey · Remembrance Sunday
Private George Taylor of the Worcester Regiment, my great-uncle, was killed in Flanders a century ago. Family lore has it that his sister, my maternal grandmother, was raking out the fire at home in Birmingham when a shiver went down her back; she said unthinkingly, ‘Don’t be silly, George,’ and that, it turned out, was the moment he had died. Uncle George thus joined the glorious, mute and quiescent dead.
Meanwhile, my father’s father had enlisted at 16 when the Great War broke out. He took a bullet to the head while rescuing a wounded comrade in no man’s land – a heroic act for which he was, in the ludicrous expression, ‘decorated’. He survived. His ‘good war’ notwithstanding, my grandfather’s after-war life was a litany of petty criminality, dodging, black-marketeering (in the Second World War), and domestic violence – he once dangled my father, as a baby, out of an upstairs window when my grandmother couldn’t stop him crying. Such may be the lives of those who fail to die too young – or, to put it the other way, live too long.
‘Never such innocence again’, Philip Larkin wrote in ‘MCMXIV’ – the Roman numerals in the poem’s title a grandiloquence as telling as it is rare in Larkin’s work. The innocence whose loss Larkin mourns seems to be that of youngsters who have no idea what they’re letting themselves in for. That seems mistaken – or, insofar as there was any innocence about it, it was that of boys set to go off to kill people, which may all be a right lark. A kind of antinomianism attends what’s often feted as courage.
So what is it that the pipsqueaks and the bloodsuckers – the grinning raiders of the poor, the coke and bondage fiends, the pallid ghouls bent on power, the pig-fuckers – who pack the government benches, honour in sporting their plastic favours, many set off, like a designer accessory, with a botanically absurd green leaf? The red blotting paper stuck to its stalk with a black plastic stud has become phatic, as semiotically remote from its supposed referent as orange polythene gourds are from Walpurgisnacht; maybe the two could be merged into a blood-orange coloured plastic blob that can do for both vapid nods to custom. The same goes for the Beeb, whose presenters seem to be on notice from about 20 October each year that any poppyless appearance on camera, be it never so fleeting, is a sacking offence (do they have to wear them on the radio?).
The vast ossuary at Douaumont by Verdun, containing the bones of a tiny fraction of those killed in the war, is surmounted by a tall but squat tower, said to be a down-turned sword, but which inescapably looks (there is no hilt) like a giant erection. A phallus, then, composed of millions of bones, most of them fragments, their owners unknown: a dong of mythic potency. And indeed the whole annual solemnity can best be seen as a manifest of symbolic power, as this Sunday when Jeremy Corbyn’s mien and wardrobe at the Cenotaph are earnestly scanned for tokens of ‘disrespect’.
What is disturbing about all this is not only that pointless conformity is bovine. 'Cui bono?' is a fair question now that all the Great War’s soldiers are dead. Remembrance Sunday purports to honour the ‘sacrifice’ and ‘courage’ of the dead, but it reveals the cowardice of those among the living too scared to be seen not to do so.
The Germans, it must be said, do it better. Were the dead less bold for having met their end for an ignoble state, assuming that it was? No doubt some members of the SS Einsatzgruppen were courageous. Do the civilian casualties – children incinerated by fire-bombing, women raped by the million – matter less than the military personnel whose deaths are honoured? It is perhaps the very futility of the killing that's thought to demand commemoration, a subjection to power that can be as pointless as you like. Not that bellicose statesmen ever present it to themselves – let alone their voters – like that, rather than as a righteous cause: blessed are the warmakers, making right of reason of state. Our annual 'remembrance' make-believe, performing power's subjection to humanity, gets things precisely wrong.