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.


  • 7 November 2015 at 11:55am
    cufflink says:
    A sincere thank you Glen for putting these searing matters on the line. Lest we forget is an adage that touches us all, but would one wear a poppy for Hiroshima day? The fact is that the Great War was indeed the war to end all wars, but only if we remember it as you tell it Glen.

  • 7 November 2015 at 12:40pm
    James Alexander says:
    Amen to all that

  • 7 November 2015 at 1:56pm
    Julian says:
    The poppy itself, wearing it, not wearing it: all have their assortment of meanings. These include the ones in this post, and I agree that our political leaders are vile hypocrites and that de facto compulsion to wear a poppy is a bad thing. But there are others. Wearing a poppy is also the nationally recognised way of acknowledging the death of British soldiers. Many people don't wear a poppy because they are not prepared to show any allegiance to or sympathy for the military at all, so the issue gets fudged.

  • 8 November 2015 at 9:48am
    kadinsky says:
    The entire charade collapses under the gentlest logical questioning. No wonder questioning has been made illegitimate.

  • 8 November 2015 at 12:06pm
    tom2015 says:
    Not as simple as that. If you were to loose your language, your culture, some major pillars of your identity and were to become a second class germanized citizen at best (XIX - XX c. case of Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats as well French from Lorraine and Italians of Adige), watch your kids being brainwashed, land forcibly taken over by German, Russian / or other / settlers you might imagine that their sacrifice wasn't necessarily driven by nasty (as usual) politicians. Not to mention times of WWII in Poland or Belorussia, where some 20%+ of the population was exterminated just because of being defined as ubermenschen... If your entire village was burnt and all inhabitants killed (thousands of those in Poland, Belorussia, Serbia) you, as a survivor, would either go mad or join resistance (i.e. start killing Germans, others), or both. I can relate to a "British" viewpoint (your soldiers were not directly defending their homes), but you might get a better idea of what was going on on the continent before your judge the monuments one-sidedly.

  • 8 November 2015 at 1:28pm says:
    We remember those who died fighting to defend our freedoms, whether or not they did so voluntarily or from motives this writer would consider laudable. It is the worst sort of intellectual arrogance that assumes that millions who died had no sense of the cause for which they fought. We do not honour them because they were the best of men, less still because we fear not to, but because they gave their lives to protect our liberties.

  • 8 November 2015 at 2:00pm
    agentmancuso says:
    Spot on.

  • 8 November 2015 at 6:54pm
    streetsj says:
    You seem to every angry and that anger has lead to confusion in your "argument". Would that wars never needed fighting - sadly they do. Having a day a year to remember the dead from those wars doesn't seem to me so awful.

    Are you saying that everyone wearing a poppy is a coward? Or is just those who wear one but don't believe in contributing to a charity and remembering the war-dead? How many of them are there? Very very few I would imagine.

    As for the gratuitous rudeness directed at members of the government - that is just puerile and probably should have stayed in your head.

  • 9 November 2015 at 6:22am
    tony lynch says:
    Thanks Glen.

    And you got an open carry response too.

  • 11 November 2015 at 10:14am
    Simon Wood says:
    We called our second daughter Poppy with the poppies in mind. I liked to think of Poppies springing up from the soil of old England.

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