Lest We Forget

Recently, in Australia and New Zealand “Anzac Day” was celebrated in honour of those soldiers who went to Europe to fight in World War One – although, of course, the day also commemorates soldiers of later wars.  Usually, during the Anzac Day week (as for the November Remembrance) I do a special book offer for my book, In the Real World (http://tinyurl.com/98c78ve) , that despite being set in a modern suburb in peacetime, is a young adult fiction that deals with war.

The book begins on an Anzac Day weekend, but the reader can fill in any war memorial day, any remembrance and any war of their own history; it makes no difference. The story is not about the actions of war, but about the emotions of it; those emotions that cause people to forget their humanity.

The period around such memorial days is usually punctuated by TV shows about historical events and ex-soldiers recalling the time they served, usually stories about friendships and heroes, while the media reports on the ceremonies with the inevitable “Lest we forget” to be followed by “the Anzac Day spirit is still alive”, which they base on the turn-out of people attending the official service – many of those being young school boys wearing their great-grandfather’s medals.

But what does it really mean that so many people attend the ceremony? Do they do so to remember the horrors of war, so they won’t be forgotten? Don’t we see the same turn-out on any patriotic event like a football match or a royal coronation or wedding?

I can imagine that families have made a tradition of memorial and remembrance days. They dig up old photographs of ancient relatives, retell the war stories to the younger members of the family and make a day of it.

I can imagine that there are people who say that we have to remember the wars, so they won’t happen again.

I can even imagine some people thinking they need to instil a sense of patriotism in their youngsters.

And I do understand that governments need these kinds of ceremonies to guarantee them soldiers for the next time – those that parade in the medals of their ancestors dreaming of being heroes – but is that really what the people want or need; the people who will deliver those next soldiers, just so they can set up the next memorial for them?

“… If people are only told of the heroes and friendships of war it’s going to attract young people. They are going to war with the idea that they’ll come back heroes, but soldiers used to go to war with the expectation that they’d die there. Not too long ago that was the desired way to go – for the Romans, for example. Many young boys, some indeed not much older than you, signed on to fight in the Great War. As far as I know, in this country no person was conscripted who had not reached the age to vote, but it isn’t like that everywhere. Anyhow, they went because they believed they’d be on a great adventure and would have a chance to show off their bravery. That was the dream for most of them. Everything they encountered came as a shock to them. Many couldn’t cope and they did remember the horrors at first when they returned, disillusioned, often mutilated, wounded and shell-shocked. They remembered the fears, the lost friends, the dirt, the lice, the rats and the stink of decaying bodies. But when they came home they didn’t get asked how bad the smell was. At best they were asked how many bad guys they’d killed and after a few years of war people are no longer interested in the politics.

 “The situation at home after a war is often one of economic decline as the war industry collapses. For a while the old life has to be built back up, but soon the soldiers find themselves without a job, without benefits for their injuries and in relative poverty in comparison to those who stayed home. After having told their horror stories once they don’t get much sympathy anymore and what is a medal on the wall if you’re being derided in the street?

“So they start longing for the good old days, the days of close friendships in the trenches, the day general so-and-so inspected the troops, the days they were still convinced they were helping their country and those at home would be proud of them. It’s those times that are recalled for the younger generation because those stories are more eagerly listened to; those stories are what are accepted by publishers because those are what people will buy and slowly the horrors can be truly forgotten.

“Having a parade, a get-together, once a year to remember that they were once important is all that’s left for them. Therefore the dilemma is this: Do we rob them of this last ritual to deter young boys from dreaming of war or do we let them continue and instil in the population the belief that wars can be won and a country protected? Remember that rituals are the quickest way for people to feel safe; rituals and belief. Do you want to take that away from people?”

Mr Fokker looks at me with that question.

“Yes, because that way you eventually keep people from having to forget those horrors, don’t you?”

“Now you’re jumping to conclusions,” he answers. “You say that remembering wars doesn’t stop a new one from happening. I agree with that, but does not remembering wars stop new ones from happening?” (In the Real World)

Do we go to a war memorial for the tradition or to prevent the next war?

Does “lest we forget” really mean what we are made to believe it does? Are we better off not forgetting than forgetting the wars? And what exactly of those wars is it we need to remember if we want to prevent the next one from happening? Is it the hero stories or the horrors? Do these ceremonies help remember the actual events of war or our idealized picture of it?

Considering that psychologists are now admitting that people don’t all remember the same details, not even a day after an event, do we really remember the war as it was or only that part that has been selected for reasons of patriotic propaganda? “So governments can trick stupid young boys into becoming soldiers,” Grandpa Will says.

People talk about “war ethics”. People say there is good reason for countries to go to war. People say, “we have to support our government”. Governments say, “we have to protect our people”. But when you look at all the past wars, did any of those benefit the people?

Artists across the warring nations still admire each other; scientists still work together or wish they could; women still feel for the children of all people. In the end, it is never the people governments go to war for, no matter what excuse they use.

So is there an ethic to war? Does not one person’s war impose on another person’s ethic of peace? Is it not freedom to be allowed to speak and act freely as long as those words and actions do not encroach on another person’s freedom? Doesn’t the government that engages in war encroach on the freedom it promised its people?

The UN Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948, is a moral law.

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

I say that a state of war is in violation with the provision of liberty and security of person for every soldier who is conscripted against his will, as well as for every civilian whose life is endangered as a result of attacks by the enemy due to this state. Since a dead person does not have freedom, the value of life itself has to take prevalence over liberty. Therefore, a government who cares for the safety of its people remains neutral or surrenders.  

Article 4

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

I say that soldiers who are trained to obey orders without having an opinion of their own and to do the dirty work for their leaders are servants of the state. If conscripted, they are “held in slavery” and sending them to foreign lands makes that slave trade.

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

I say that for some types of people – and this is part of their inborn psychology and not a choice – it is degrading punishment to be treated as a number in a army of identical beings and to be forced to wear a uniform.  

 Article 20

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association… No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

I say that an army is an association and it is not a peaceful one.

I understand that there may be situations in which is necessary to fight back, but each person will have to make the decision whether something is necessary for themselves; nobody can decide necessity for somebody else without invading on their privacy and freedom.

Ethical decisions are individual decisions. As long as there is no congruence about what is right or wrong, good or bad – and there never has been nor will there even be congruence, because not all people are psychologically alike – the imposition of one view upon others is itself an act of oppression.

So is it true that remembering dead soldiers will stop the next war? Did it help the last thousands of times? Is it true that we need brave soldiers to fight the next war? Isn’t the next war much more likely to be automated?

When I asked a peace organization if they would consider advertising my book,  they replied that they could not possible do so because they had to “support our soldiers”.  But can people really say they want peace and yet glorify war – or the symbols of it – without being hypocrites?

I will keep saying this: To portray soldiers as heroes – even if some of them were – is not helping peace, because it sends the wrong message. See my other post, Heroes and Cowardshttp://judgmenthurts.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/heroes-and-cowards/

The government tells people it wants peace but actively supports war and peace organizations repeat this message without giving a second thought to what they are actually saying.

So, do we really want more government money to be spent on war memorials, so the politicians can lay a wreath every year and be applauded for it?

I say “no”; enough is enough. The First World War is nearly a century in the past. If we want to give peace a fair chance, it is time that we stop deceiving our children with hero stories that are based on fantasy and on memories that are fictitious, or they will be the next soldiers to be brought home in body bags.

The PM who today lays a wreath at a war memorial represents the PM who sent those soldiers to die. If a politician today does not believe in war, he should not be at the ceremony.

And what about those medals?

How is it that those who have no voice, those who identify by a uniform and shout “yes sir” to a superior, those who kill on command without any regard for life itself,  those who cannot possibly be called “individuals” in any definition of the word, can get medals with their name on it as if they somehow acted on their own?

They didn’t. An army has no place for individuals. Soldiers who don’t follow orders are punished – in times of peace they may be kicked out, but in a war situation they face death and, lest we forget, hundreds of soldiers in the First World War alone, were killed by their own superiors (not by the enemy) for being disobedient.