‘My subject is War, and the pity of War.’ – Wilfred Owen
My great-great-granddad Joseph Henry fought in the First World War, but I can’t connect with poppies. My feelings towards Remembrance Day are complicated, tied to questions of Australia’s collective memory-making and nationalist war-narrative. In bleak winter at the Australian War Memorial I was moved by the silent multitude of names, but my conviction remains that the best way to honour the war-dead is not to make more of them.
My high school syllabus profoundly influenced my attitude to war and memory. Beginning with journals from the trenches, reading, for the first time, accounts of warfare – ruptured bodies, hopelessness, suffering in battle-games of powerful men – I couldn’t believe we still sent people to fight. An iconoclastic History Extension lecture deconstructing nationalism, Gallipoli and ANZAC legend helped me understand a little more the powerful uses of memorial in twentieth-century warmongering.
The visions of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon haunt me, more than a decade on. No glowing heroics, their battlefield a terrifying, futile sound-and-fury for ‘these who die as cattle’ (as in ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’). Sassoon’s ‘Counter-Attack’ is a disorienting frenzy of terror and violence, in a landscape ‘rotten with dead’. Owen’s hellish gas attacks in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ linger vividly: ‘… the white eyes writhing … blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer …’ Considering the body-destroying horror of our technological advances in weaponry – atom bombs, napalm, semi-automatic rifles – Owen’s words ring out like an accusation, a trauma collapsing time.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
The poets’ survivors are tormented by the stalking ghost-of-war, its echoes disrupting mind or body. Embittered, the returned of Owen’s ‘Disabled’ and Sassoon’s ‘Repression of War Experience’ suffer quietly, alienated and derisive of their part-pity-part-praise reception.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Today, neglect of veterans is evident in the fact that a charitable organisation, not any state-administered system, bears the financial and care responsibility for ex-soldiers. Even the RSL is critical of the funding for memorials versus the funding that goes toward supporting veterans. That we’ll fund statues more easily than flesh-and-blood humans suggest how glory-mythologies dehumanise soldiers. We love the dead and forget the living.
That early syllabus fleshed out and humanised those heroic silhouettes of war memorials. I remember silent footage of infantry marching through a winter trench-landscape – one throws a snowball at the back of his comrade’s head and the sweetness of it wrenched me. A classroom-projector viewing of the 2005 film Joyeux Noël and I became obsessed with the informal truces of 1914, how war wasn’t even ‘about’ those people facing each other, and killing each other. Pierre Purseigle notes the uniquely terrible debt we owe to soldiers, whom we have asked to break taboo and kill on our behalf. After 1914, the downing of weapons for the sake of human fellowship was officially prohibited, lest soldiers consider their enemies real people. This still fills me with quiet horror. I suppose I, too, have succumbed to this danger of making people human.
A minute is not long enough to pay tribute to everyone who gave their lives so we could have wars. According to the Australian War Memorial website, the minute’s silence is to remember ‘those who died or suffered for Australia’s cause.’ If we remember drafted soldiers who died for our causes, why not others who didn’t choose to engage in conflict, but died without a uniform? We give less memorial to the civilian dead. Less glory in being the sacrificed than the self-sacrificers – of those lives taken, not given. But didn’t Great Men sacrifice our soldiers, Owen and Sassoon would ask. Poppies – flowers on the field of war – drink blood of ally, enemy and civilian with indifference.
A century since armistice, and in that hundred years of brutality, what did that Great War mean? According to the AWM, almost 62,000 Australians ‘died fighting for our freedom and in service of our nation.’ Freedom? For all the complex causes of the First World War, Australia went because of Britain; I can’t help but feel those boys, those victims, were killed by colonial spirit.
I recall Owen’s words:
… you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Our present-day Remembrance echoes Britain and its memorials. In the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ (2014), 888,246 ceramic poppies flooded the Tower of London, one for each British casualty of the Great War. Over there, Remembrance Day has taken on uneasy expressions: abuse for not wearing poppies, propaganda of Britain First, the bizarre frenzy around ‘bowgate’. The red poppy is easily fetishised – and then weaponised for a politics perpetuating a glorious, unquestioning military mythology. Does this underly Australia’s Remembrance? The Australian Army says the poppy is ‘in memory of the sacred dead who rest in Flanders’ Fields’ and the ‘sacred cause for which they laid down their lives’. Military history given divinity, to which querying responses become heresy, even blasphemy.
Remembrance Day is important because we should never forget the loss of lives in war. I have no easy answer to questions of ‘just war’, or balancing the account-books of slaughter and sacrifice. But a desire to prevent further war-deaths must, I believe, be at the forefront of memorials. Not glorifying a noble death-cause, but soberly, with empathy and regret, always looking for other ways forward.
In a minute’s silence I will remember, though I could never learn all names of the dead. Maybe that’s why legends are easier. Our dead-in-war are too numerous – and from the next war, that number will grow. If I am angry in a minute’s silence it is not at soldiers themselves, but those who politicise human loss to exalt the conflicts that cause it. When we devalue the cost of human lives, we dehumanise them into cannon fodder. I say never again. Let us instead reconsider the meaning of memorials and the kind of humans we wish to be.
Image: a dead German soldier, 1918 / National Library of Scotland