Content Warning: Contains descriptions of violence, sexual assault, conflict, and misery.
So much of history, particularly popular history, is aggrandising. It is a generator of a sense of identity for specific groups whether that is religious, national or even just a small group within society.
Military history is especially like this and it is disturbing how much history is militarily focussed. I personally dislike it. It is far too often presented as a condensation of conflict into simple narratives that ignore the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of lives lost or altered for the worst, in the most cold, brutal and disgusting of ways.
It has a tendency to lionise the aspects of conflict that people have endured. It creates simple spirits, attitudes and heroes that if they existed at all were merely a smile in the face of futility; a necessity. People did not have a choice. They endured or else died.
I fear we tend to celebrate that endurance without truly highlighting the savagery and the horrors that necessitated the endurance in the first place. We tend to suffer survivorship bias, whereby we praise those who endured, but forget those who did not, or could not. In some cases this is mere forgetfulness, but in others it manifests much worse; in blame. “They did not have what it took.” It is maddening, and saddening.
Where people do speak or write of this they are often accused of being bleeding hearts, trembling pacifists afraid to ‘stand up’, peaceniks and hippies, they are lambasted by people who perceive ‘pacifism’ to be a dirty word and not an acceptable path. These are people who see the concept before the person, who see the uniform before the wound and the blood.
Many of the people who think these things likely imagine themselves in the place of their heroes. They imagine themselves in those same situations, doing the right thing, leading the charge, protecting their friends and comrades and sacrificing their very lives for what is ‘right’. This is folly. The human brain has a tendency to overestimate our capacities. We cannot know how we will behave in a life-or-death situation until we are in one, and in those circumstances the so-called strongest people can find themselves paralysed and trembling, and the unlikeliest of candidates can exhibit remarkable feats of bravery.
The UK is particularly guilty of this glorification. We seem to have a popular narrative that promotes an unconquerable ‘spirit’, rather than a necessary grind of endurance.
The UK, through the years, has littered the world with misery and corpses through warfare. Many are the bodies unknown, at home and abroad, domestic and foreign, killed in our conflicts. Yet I find it hard to speak with many about the horrors without it having to be turned into glory.
How quick we forget the lessons of our secondary school World War I educations. The armchair generals, ill-thought-out tactics and sacrifices willingly placed upon an altar of violence by those who would never actually face the dangers or cast their eyes upon the hellish horrors of that blood-mudded battlefield.
We talk of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ as if that event wasn’t a misplaced attempt of an invasion gone awry, leading to one of the biggest retreats in history. Did it lead to some incredible acts of bravery in the face of danger? Yes, but in focussing on the bravery, rather than the danger, I fear we miss the point. Dunkirk happened because of a cock-up by the top brass who were bailed out by merchants and people who caught fish for a living. The failure of the invasion is merely an undercoat, glossed over with the shiny necessity that regular people had to step up or else the entire war could have been lost.
It talks of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the supposed closeness that British people felt when they were being bombarded by explosives from Nazi Germany. Little is told of people starving under rationing and eating their pets, robbing and raiding bombed out homes, and black market trade in restricted items. Little attention in the popular narrative is paid to the pillage, violence and rape so endemic during those uncertain, dark, blackout years.
There is talk of ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’ from people who enlisted only to be broken. We speak little of the families of men who signed up becoming victims of those common themes in male PTSD; mental torture, substance abuse and physical violence. We speak little of the families who suffered for generations because of it.
We skip over the number of men so shattered on the battlefields of World War I that they became ‘shell-shocked’, many of whom were killed as ‘cowards’ by the same kinds of people, and the same kinds of thinking, that insist on creating heroes out of what are, ostensibly, victims.
It has widely been acknowledge through history, by many of the greatest generals and tactical military thinkers, that the best way to win is the way without fighting. Yet there is always some vainglorious politician willing to throw lives away for even a hint of glory, a statue in Westminster and that least human, most obnoxious of titles – ‘hero’.
I do not wish to tell people what to think. That is for each individual to decide. Nor can I tell people how to think, that will be determined by a variety of factors relating to cognition, conditioning and capacity.
I will tell people, though, to at least think.
Abstract heroes did not die on our battlefields. Human beings did.
Nor did they find their peace in death. Instead, much as their corpses once lay used, twisted and mangled on battlefields; today they are twisted and mangled by those who would seek to use their deaths for glory, their sacrifices for honour and their spent lives to further the prosperity of their own. For all our talk of remembrance, we forget so quickly the attitudes, ideas and personalities that led us to such horrible mass slaughter.
To let them truly rest in peace the ultimate act of remembrance is not to consider them heroes. They died as pawns, we must let them rest as human beings and stop playing with them.
We seem, in recent times, to vote for those historical attitudes, for glory and grandiosity. We seem to be voting to send ourselves on an inevitable course to the next global scale mass slaughter. How quick we forget, for all our talk of remembrance.
There has never been a glorious war. There has never been a dignified death. Every struggle we romanticise and glamourise is another comforting lie in the face of often grim, uncomfortable truth.
We should remember them. But we should remember them as they are, and as they were.
Here’s to the human beings, all of them, their lives ended or else dramatically changed by conflict. I will remember people, not concepts. I will remember suffering, not glory. I will remember, and always pursue, truth rather than fantasy.
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,Wilfred Owen – World War I Poet
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Born 18th March 1893 – Died in conflict, 4th November 1918 – only a week before the armistice.