This was originally featured in The Church Times in 2007 and reflects the huge influence Paul Fussell, Modrick Ecksteins and Geoff Dyer have had on my thinking.
Most of us would agree that war is brutal, nasty, and violent. Few would instinctively add ‘ironic’ to that list. The cultural historian and literary critic Paul Fussell famously suggested that war constitutes a terrible irony of situation. So, by way of illustration, Fussell notes that in the Great War 8 million people were destroyed ostensibly because two people, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot. Equally, in the Second World War, air bombardment (which was supposed to shorten the war) prolonged it by inviting those who were its targets to cast themselves as victim-heroes and thereby stiffened their resolve. I suggest that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was presented as a war of liberation aiming to give Iraq back to its people; in a dreadful twist of irony, its consequences daily seem to lead the Iraqi people deeper into bondage and dependence.
War constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is presented by the Great War. Everyone knows that the there was a mass belief that the war would be over by Christmas; everyone also knows that that hope was cruelly crushed by the consequences of total war. The beastliness of war in part lies in its capacity both to inflate people’s hope (by offering the anticipation of quick victory, the defence of national pride or dubious promises of conquest) and also to snuff out that hope by its uncontrollable consequences. The experience of the Great War – characterised by the seeming innocence of the European nations in 1914 about the consequences of industrialised war and the unprecedented nature of what actually happened (three and a half years of stalemate, the development of ever more nasty ways of prosecuting war and so on) – may reveal war’s irony par excellence, but it is hardly an isolated case.
Currently, the U.S.A and its allies are involved in what is usually called ‘a war on terror’; it has been noted by commentators in many quarters that this is a war truly without limit. It does not have, like so-called conventional wars, what might be called an ‘end-game’. It is unclear how ‘we’ will know when it has been ‘won’. The reality of trying to fight an asymmetrical war seems to offer the possibility of taking war’s irony to a new and more appalling level: if we cannot imagine what it would be like to truly bring the war on terror to an end, then we cannot anticipate just how dreadful and limitless the effects of its prosecution might be. One is tempted to suggest that if the governments of the USA and Britain had been more attentive to the ironic nature of war as definitively revealed by the experience of both world wars (but also by less total conflagrations), they might have drawn back from the seemingly uncontrollable, nasty and bewildering expedition in Iraq.
‘Remembrance Sunday’ has a peculiar resonance for me, one which was shaped by childhood. It is as much about memory – my memories of my grandparents, both male and female, whose lives were altered forever by their experience of the Great War – as remembrance. I remain impressed by the bleak peculiar stillness and movement of the National Ceremony of Remembrance from the Cenotaph. As a child I refused to go to church on Remembrance Sunday because I was transfixed by the TV broadcast of this strange event. It was the day each year on which I, a wild excitable child, stopped, and simply goggled at the stiff choreography of figures so ancient they were surely made of stone and animated by a magical spell.
To use language I’ve learnt since, Remembrance Sunday was to me at 9, a ritual speaking into transcendence and vice versa. I found strange communion in a cold November ritual. My Grandad Bert, a veteran of the Somme and Paschendaele, watched too - but alone. Years later, mum told me this was because he hated anyone seeing him cry. We can forget too easily that the essential purpose of war is injuring, and I have met (and in my grandparents case loved) too many who have been war’s casualties to feel at ease talking too blithely about war’s sacrifice, glory and duty. I know too much about how the Church has, to its shame, conflated martial and religious understandings of these words in order to evoke at best fine feelings and minister to people’s grief, and at worst to stir the Nation on to greater violent efforts. I give thanks that the Church of England today could not conceive of acting as the Bishop of London, Winnington-Ingram, did during the Great War and work effectively as a recruitment sergeant for the war effort, offering rousing speeches based on Biblical texts to stir the common man to join up.
And yet I find it a peculiar privilege to preside at Remembrance Sunday worship. I feel inadequate and somewhat awed to lead prayers in the company of men and women who, through their experience of war, have been party to terrible events and yet remain people who seek after the things of hope, faith and love. I remain convinced that underneath the faintly militaristic feel of many Remembrance Sunday rituals (the bugle, the use of standards and Laurence Binyon’s famous words) there is a ‘hard’ core of significance – the victims and perpetrators of war (who are sometimes one and the same) must not be forgotten. In a forgetful culture, so often dazzled by its technological and monetary success, I should not wish our rituals of remembrance to decay into misuse, even as I anticipate their evolution.
British society has shifted so much since the remembrance rituals were inaugurated after the Great War. Traditional patriarchal notions of honour, duty and glory are for most of us a spent force. Many of us are inclined to see the real heroes of war as those who refuse to fight. In 1994, in Tavistock Square, a memorial was finally unveiled ‘to all who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope’. As the writer Geoff Dyer noted, for many of us, ‘pride has come to reside not in the carrying out of duty, but in its humane dereliction’. One of the challenges for Church and Society in the 21st century is nurturing rituals of remembrance which encompass both the prevailing cultural mood with its appropriate abhorrence for war and an honouring of the sacrifices of servicemen and women both in the past and now. Soldiers, like prophets, have often been without honour in their own land, as shown most notably by the experience of ex-servicemen in the USA post-Vietnam. Their service should not be sneered at or forgotten. Equally, a failure to be attentive to the nasty ironies and consequences of war would be to betray them and their successors even more.