I was just sitting down to write this post when I heard a marching band playing just outside my house. The ‘music’ was upbeat and heroic, full of martial pomp and circumstance, just the kind of jolly marching tunes that once inspired thousands of young men to demonstrate their heroism and manliness by volunteering to fight in France in World War I.
Tens of thousands of them may have heard those tunes in their head when they walked unprotected into machinegun fire, sometimes without helmets ( a ‘sissy’ contraption according to one of the Colonel Blimps of the period). Others drowned in shellholes filled with mud or were blown to pieces or died hanging on barbed wire calling out for their mates to come and help them.
Such was the ‘Great War’ in which ten million soldiers and seven million civilians died. Nowhere in the annual Remembrance Day commemorations is there been any recognition of the essential obscenity, barbarity and waste of life that this conflict entailed. Instead we are all invited to regard the ‘war to end wars’ as tragic, yet inherently glorious and noble.
I am not a pacifist. I regard war as an obscene barbarity and I would like to see it disappear from the face of the earth, but I also believe that there are periods in history when war is unavoidable, for example, as a means of self-defence against invasion or oppression.
However, even in these cases war should be a last resort, and it should never be used as a convenient instrument of policy or statecraft. I reject aggressive wars, wars of conquest, resource wars, and wars that are designed to make money for corporations, companies and war profiteers. And most of all I reject militarism and the notion that war is some higher and ennobling activity for the soldiers that take part in it and the societies that send them to do so.
And even in cases where I might personally agree that wars might justified, I don’t believe that war should be celebrated for its own sake. And every year, whenever I see the red poppies on every BBC reporter’s lapel, and pictures like this, I can’t help feeling that this is exactly what is taking place.
Note the solemn expressions, the bowed heads, the air of gravitas and deep reflection, the black ties and poppies. They look like worshippers at a religious service, which is, in a way, exactly what these events are. For all we know they might be thinking about what they had for breakfast this morning, or who they were about to shag, as (it later turned out) John Prescott was doing on a similar occasion some years ago.
But all of them, like the hapless Nicola in The Thick of It know what is expected of them; a temporary display of patriotic unity; the collective commemoration of a blood sacrifice that none of them or their children will ever pay; a dignified photo-op to encapsulate the notion of ‘remembrance’.
It is doubtful that either Miliband, Clegg or Cameron are remembering the useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which hundreds of British soldiers have been killed or maimed or returned with PTSD and other forms of mental and emotional trauma because of the disgusting things they have seen and done there.
Nor are they likely to waste much time thinking about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed and maimed during this grim decade of pseudo-wars based on lies and myths and sustained by the cowardice of politicians like them – not to mention those that are still to come. Cameron has just returned from selling weapons to the Gulf States, in preparation for wars with Iran and/or Syria that may prove to be even bloodier and more catastrophic than their predecessors.
So frankly readers, the sight of these three paying homage to those who ‘paid the ultimate sacrifice’ for ‘Queen and country’, disgusts me. Does anyone honestly and seriously believe that this is what British soldiers killed and died for in Iraq and Afghanistan? I don’t think so.
These are paid soldiers, who went where they were sent, and they were sent to the wrong places and for the wrong reasons, because the British political establishment ordered it, and because British society, for the most part, accepted it, however guiltily.
Nothing that we have learned about these wars in recent years has changed that situation. Tomorrow Cameron may snap his fingers and send soldiers into Syria, if he hasn’t done so already. In two years time it may be Miliband’s turn to send them somewhere else.
And wherever these soldiers go, whatever they do, and whether they come back dead or mentally and physically broken, these politicians and those who came before them will continue to gather every year and bow their heads, and we are all expected to lower our eyes with them and observe two minutes silence, for those who have died, and for those who are yet to be killed.