The Night the Lights Went Out

I didn’t join in the Lights Out remembrance on Monday night, though I’m told that our town looked pretty with the single lights or candles glowing in the darkness, and photographs show that the nation also looked beautiful  throughout the hour-long ‘gesture of remembrance’, as David Cameron called it.  Obviously I’m not going to do anything that Cameron asks me to do, however indirectly.   But quite frankly, this elegaic, soft-focus commemoration of World War I revolts me, just as it does on Remembrance Sunday every year.

Monday’s centennial anniversary was Remembrance Day squared, a vapiod, elite-driven vspectacle presided over by celebrity actors, bishops, dukes and duchesses, by generals and reverential politicians laying flowers,while uttering resonant buzzwords such as ‘remembrance’, ‘ reflection’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘ sacrifice’ which only serve to distance the anniversary from the essential obscenity of the war itself.

Nearly a million British and Commonwealth servicemen died in World War I, many of them in the most vile and horrendous circumstances imaginable, out of an overall total of seventeen million. History, to paraphrase Marx’s famous dictum, begins as obscenity and  repeats itself as kitsch photo op imagery,  in which assorted dignatories bathe themselves in candlelight and politicians bow their heads for sombre ‘reflection’ shots for the front pages; tanks fire clouds of poppies; duchesses lay flowers or blow out candles like high priestesses worshipping at the cult of war, and ‘Kate’, Edward and the moronic thug Harry wade kneedeep through fields of ceramic red flowers.

On Monday, as is the case on Remembrance Sunday every year, there was no blood or wounds or the horror that Wilfred Owen and so many others have described, just the familiar elegaic and  celebratory tone and the endless repetition of the ludicrous myth of ‘ a war to end all wars’ – which only enhance the image of World War I as a tragic but inherently noble enterprise

None of this is surprising, because the British elite has always loved war, and continues to love it, and the British state continues to regard war as an essential instrument of policy in the 21st century.

So I didn’t light a candle, and didn’t turn my lights out until I went to bed.  And I would rather remember the war that Rosa Luxemburg described from a prison cell in 1915 in her magnicent Junius Pamphlet  in these searing paragraphs that are worth repeating in their entirety:

‘The scene has changed fundamentally. The six weeks’ march to Paris has grown into a world drama.  Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. Bourgeois statecraft is held fast in its own vise. The spirits summoned up can no longer be exorcised.

Gone is the euphoria. Gone the patriotic noise in the streets, the chase after the gold-colored automobile, one false telegram after another, the wells poisoned by cholera, the Russian students heaving bombs over every railway bridge in Berlin, the French airplanes over Nuremberg, the spy hunting public running amok in the streets, the swaying crowds in the coffee shops with ear-deafening patriotic songs surging ever higher, whole city neighborhoods transformed into mobs ready to denounce, to mistreat women, to shout hurrah and to induce delirium in themselves by means of wild rumors. Gone, too, is the atmosphere of ritual murder, the Kishinev air where the crossing guard is the only remaining representative of human dignity.

The spectacle is over. German scholars, those “stumbling lemurs,” have been whistled off the stage long ago. The trains full of reservists are no longer accompanied by virgins fainting from pure jubilation. They no longer greet the people from the windows of the train with joyous smiles. Carrying their packs, they quietly trot along the streets where the public goes about its daily business with aggrieved visages.

In the prosaic atmosphere of pale day there sounds a different chorus – the hoarse cries of the vulture and the hyenas of the battlefield. Ten thousand tarpaulins guaranteed up to regulations! A hundred thousand kilos of bacon, cocoa powder, coffee-substitute – c.o.d, immediate delivery! Hand grenades, lathes, cartridge pouches, marriage bureaus for widows of the fallen, leather belts, jobbers for war orders – serious offers only! The cannon fodder loaded onto trains in August and September is moldering in the killing fields of Belgium, the Vosges, and Masurian Lakes where the profits are springing up like weeds. It’s a question of getting the harvest into the barn quickly. Across the ocean stretch thousands of greedy hands to snatch it up.

Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries, deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls. International law, treaties and alliances, the most sacred words and the highest authority have been torn in shreds. Every sovereign “by the grace of God” is called a rogue and lying scoundrel by his cousin on the other side. Every diplomat is a cunning rascal to his colleagues in the other party. Every government sees every other as dooming its own people and worthy only of universal contempt. There are food riots in Venice, in Lisbon, Moscow, Singapore. There is plague in Russia, and misery and despair everywhere.

Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.’

Now that would have been something to have heard on Monday night, and Luxemburg’s  brave, impassioned eloquence has a far more convincing message to offer the present generation than the platitudes and soundbites from the ‘hyenas of the battlefield’ who are still with us, still urging on or supporting new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Libya, Syria, Gaza, Ukraine,  and beyond, still promoting what Wilfred Owen once called ‘ the old lie’ that it will always be sweet and good to die for your country.

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