It’s that time of year again, when those who send people to kill and die in wars that they will never fight themselves, wear black and put on their most solemn and reverential faces to pay homage to the Unknown Soldier and celebrate the Glorious Dead.
It’s a time when poppies adorn every tv presenter’s chest – if they want their careers to prosper. When every soldier is a saint and a knight in shining armour. When licensed homicide is remembered only as a blood sacrifice. When the smell of blood is always absent. Like the mangled bodies and broken bones and the disgusting horror of the trenches.
Like the hideous spectacle of young bodies walking into machine gun fire, cut down like rows of ripe corn or blown to unrecognizable pulp so that kings and kaisers could prosper, and arms manufacturers could continue to churn out bullets, bombs and battle cruisers – the predecessors of Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and other companies for whom war is always desirable and in fact essential.
Nowhere is there room in these mythologies of noble warfare for the thrillseeking young men who rushed off to France as though it were all a great adventure, summoned by Kitchener’s finger and the posters from the Ministry of War advertising ‘Good Hunting in Berlin,’ who shat themselves while waiting in the trenches to go over the top, or drowned in muddy shellholes with their mothers’ names on their lips, or plunged bayonets into the flesh of strangers who were no different from them except for the colour of their uniform.
There will not be space to wonder what led millions of working men to slaughter each other for rulers who only pretended to care about them when they became soldiers. Or the colonial troops brought by their colonial masters to fight in Europe’s civil wars, many of whom had no choice in the matter.
Or the soldiers who were shot for cowardice because they had ‘soldier’s heart’, which we now call PTSD. Or those who came back with arms and legs missing, and minds traumatized by experiences that they never talked about.
Because civilian society doesn’t want to hear too much about the reality of war. It wants wreaths and flowers. It wants the Queen at the Cenotaph. Princes and Princesses wearing black. It wants marching bands, beautiful tales of old soldiers talking about the ‘great’ war, tales of selflessness and masculine courage and odes to those who made the ‘supreme sacrifice’.
Why spoil that by wondering why Winston Churchill in 1914 called for the British navy to impose an economic blockade on Germany and the Central Powers in order to ‘starve the whole population – men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound’?
Or Curtis LeMay, the American Air Force General who defended the bombing of Japanese cities on the grounds ‘ There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders’?
Or the thousands of American soldiers who have committed suicide after serving in the Iraq war? Or the helicopter pilots on the Wikileaks video who shot down unarmed Iraqis and gloated ‘look at those dead bastards’ and joked about how one of their victims appeared to be moving towards a ‘weapon’ – in fact a camera, so that they could shoot him? Or the British Marine who shot a prisoner in the head and made a little joke about the ‘worthless piece of shit’ as he did so?
To stop and wonder what it is about war that makes men behave like this would be troubling and disconcerting. To look too deeply into what soldiers have seen and done might reveal ‘upsetting scenes’, as our newcasters say. It might even make us think about war in a different way. It might even make war seem…unpalatable, and even depraved.
So better to concentrate on the pomp and circumstance, the politicians and former heads of state with their stone faces and black and red attire.
But when we watch the great and good of our warrior nation gather at the Cenotaph, it’s worth remembering that Cameron, an effete, pasty-faced twerp who knows much more about Chipping Norton than he knows about war and battles, was nevertheless so caught up in the vicarious thrill, that he ordered the bombing of Libya without the slightest clue how it would all end up, and would have done the same in Syria.
And in a year in which the Iraqi death toll climbed once again towards the horrendous civil war of 2007-08, we might also remember how those who helped start that war have profited from it, whether it’s the Peace Envoy in the Middle East, or Jonathan Powell, or John Reid, or Sally Morgan, or Alistair Campbell – ‘humanitas professor of journalism, ‘and so many others.
We might also wonder why the Chilcot Inquiry is not allowed to see more than 130 records of conversations between Blair and Bush – including one memo in which the former US president, a coke-sniffing boozer who once ducked military service with the help of his Dad, boasted that he was about to ‘kick ass’ in Iraq.
Blair was there at the Cenotaph today, wearing his grim remembering the dead face – the British dead that is, not the more than half a million Iraqis who died and are still dying because of the war that he did so much to make possible.
And Gordon Brown was there too – another militarist windbag who liked to write books on wartime courage while he driveled on about how British soldiers were in Afghanistan to ‘ keep us safe.’
Liars, phonies and sanctimonious frauds, the lot of them, whose presence is another part of the ceremony of remembrance is one more reminder that these annual rituals are not just about remembering, but preparing the public for the next wars that the British state may one day require.