It's late autumn, and it's Remembrance Sunday. For the first time in years I watched on TV the great and the good, including those who were the cheerleaders for wars of aggression on Afghanistan and Iraq, placing their poppy wreaths on the Cenotaph. There was even bonnie Prince Harry, he of the nifty Nazi party gear, he of the snappy camouflaged personalised headgear that proclaimed “We do bad things to bad people”, solemnly laying a wreath on behalf of daddy, who's away doing something important today.
The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London has played host to the Remembrance Service for the past nine decades. But how did the monument become such an indelible part of the UK's commemoration of those who lost their lives in past conflicts?
Originally intended as a small part of the Peace Day events of July 1919, The Cenotaph was designed and built by Edwin Lutyens at the request of the then Prime Minister Lloyd George.
The Cenotaph - which literally means Empty Tomb in Greek - was initially a wood and plaster construction intended for the first anniversary of the Armistice in 1919. At its unveiling the base of the monument was spontaneously covered in wreaths to the dead and missing from The Great War. Such was the extent of public enthusiasm for the construction it was decided that The Cenotaph should become a permanent and lasting memorial.http://www.bbc.co.uk/remembrance/how/cenotaph.shtml
The Cenotaph was deliberately placed in Whitehall, right outside the Foreign Office, near to the entrance to Downing Street, as a reminder to the people who run this country that wars of aggression are inherently evil, that wars should be fought only as a last resort, and even then should be fought in ways that avoid the unnecessary slaughter of civilians and service personnel alike.
So much for the theory. 1968 was the only year since the Cenotaph was constructed in which our military were not engaged in warfare, somewhere or other. Ah yes – the year of peace and love. The year of wearing flowers in our hair.
Well at least the much-reviled Harold Wilson, back in the Sixties, refused to send British forces to Vietnam. With hindsight Wilson was a political giant compared to the pygmies and bozos who succeeded him.
Overall, Wilson is seen to have managed a number of difficult political issues with considerable tactical skill, including such potentially divisive issues for his party as the role of public ownership, British membership of the European Community, and the Vietnam War.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Wilson
US President Lyndon Johnson brought pressure to bear for at least a token involvement of British military units in the Vietnam War. Wilson consistently avoided any commitment of British forces.
Mum asked me to go out and buy her a poppy, and spoke movingly about her five brothers and their involvement in WW2, on both land and sea. She also talked about dad's near-fatal injury near Caen, in Normandy. She spoke with regret about having missed the recent documentary on TV about the bombing of Coventry. She still remembers the bombing. She can't stand the bangs and explosions of bonfire night. She doesn't see the fun in big bangs and terrifying noises. There's a fair bit of talk these days about those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but almost nothing was said about the after-effects of war on my parents' generation. They just had to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with life as best they could.
Every day brings more news of the latest dead and injured soldiers in Afghanistan. More and more of us demand withdrawal, and are countered by those who say that having come this far we can't just back out of the war, leaving the Afghanis to their fate. That would be irresponsible. Even if that's what the majority of Afghanis want us to do. No - we're there to rid the world of jihadis and assorted bad guys, preventing them plotting their devilish plots, thereby keeping the civilised world safe for the good guys. Us.
We've helped to kill more than 100,000 innocent Iraqis in revenge for the Twin Towers - even though Iraq had nothing to do with that atrocity – but we're still the Christian good guys. Even though Jesus said forget about revenge - an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Especially the eyes and teeth of people who haven't laid a finger on you.
In that instance “turning the other cheek” would have involved staying in control of destructive emotions and in a completely objective spirit of non-attachment setting about 1) discovering who were the perpetrators of those criminal acts, and 2) bringing them to justice. Yes - letting the international courts of justice deal with the criminal perpetrators. But no – we had to have a War On Terror and the ruthless destruction of an entire country. Just because we could. Regardless of the cost to those involved in and those affected by the war. Regardless of the near-destruction of the entire civilian infrastructure in Iraq. Hospitals, homes, power supplies, industries, commerce, trade and livelihoods. Afghanistan had a lot less to lose from having the shit shelled out of it. Though it still lost plenty. And hasn't noticeably gained a great deal.
Yes – those were the days. Shock and Awe. Hell – rebuilding Iraq, or trying to, or appearing to, was at least profitable. Incredibly profitable for Uncle Sam's favoured sons and daughters – Halliburton, Blackwater, et al. The world's first privatised war and semi-reconstruction of an entire country.
Well they do say you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. For the USA and its allies the world isn't so much their oyster as their omelette.
There was an excellent documentary on TV last week about Harry Patch and the last of the WW1 generation, and the things they went through in the trenches.
At one point during the advance a German emerged from a trench, bayonet fixed, and ran towards Patch. The 19-year-old drew his service revolver and shot the German in the shoulder. Still he came on.
The gun team had made an unusually humane and highly irregular pact that they would not shoot to kill unless absolutely necessary, and Patch remembered this code as he again took aim. “I couldn’t kill him. He was a man I never knew, I couldn’t talk to him. I shot him above the ankle, above the knee. He went down. He said something to me in German – God knows what it was – but for him the war was over.”
Like most of those who had survived the war, Harry Patch simply returned to his former life as a civilian and settled down to married life. But he returned to Combe Down “thoroughly disillusioned”: “I could never understand why my country could call me from my peacetime job and train me to go to France and try to kill a man I never knew. Why did we fight? I asked myself that, many times."
He never spoke about the war – not even to his wife of 57 years. In this regard, he was not unusual. As Dennis Goodwin, founder, along with his son, of the World War One Veterans’ Association, puts it, these men “simply retreated into their own shell hole of memories”.
Patch refused to join veterans’ associations, had no wish to revisit battlefields, never attended a regimental reunion and avoided all war films. He did, however, keep in touch with his old “No 1”, Bob Haynes, until he died in the 1970s.
Patch did his best to repress all memories of the trenches. It was only at the age of 98, when he moved to Fletcher House, a residential care home in the Somerset city of Wells, that a minor incident brought those memories back. The door to his room was opposite a linen cupboard, and one night someone switched on the fluorescent light inside. Flashes of light came through the glass panel above the door to Patch’s room. Half asleep, he was transported in an instant back to Passchendaele. “It was the flash of a bomb,” he recalled. “That flash brought it all back.” He had been suffering from bad dreams about the war, and decided that the time had come to face his demons.
In the autumn of 2004, aged 106, he was persuaded to travel to Flanders for a BBC documentary, The Last Tommy. He was filmed at Tyne Cot, the largest British war cemetery, containing almost 12,000 graves, many of them holding unidentified bodies.
“Some of the boys buried here,” he remarked, “are the same age as me, killed on the same day I was fighting. Any one of them could have been me. Millions of men came to fight in this war, and I find it incredible that I am now the only one left. Just like them, when I went over the top I didn’t know whether I would last longer than five minutes. We were the PBI – the Poor Bloody Infantry – and we were expendable. What a waste. What a terrible waste."
There was also an excellent documentary on the last days of the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Eastern European communist regimes. Catch it on the BBC iPlayer:
For young people contemplating embarking on a rewarding career we have news today of the most rewarding careers. Banking? Stockbroking? Currency trading?
If you bothered to go to that hyperlink you'll have noticed that the thing those top careers have in common is providing direct benefits to other people. Careers for carers. In almost every case they are “labours of love”. None of them qualify for bonuses and share handouts for hitting profits targets, which are very much still happening for our top bankers.
This is what Prince Siddartha discovered on his journey to becoming the Buddha – that to become fulfilled, self-actualised and happy you need to do things in the service of those less able, less strong, less well-off. Or as Bob Dylan once said, you gotta serve somebody. Not God or a god. Some-body. Preferably many. And not at the expense of any other body, or bodies. Such as innocent Afghanis and Iraqis.
On a much lighter note, although he's actually a very serious guy (see previous comments about John Cooper Clark in a blog I recommend and which now has fully functioning hyperlinks http://oxzen.blogspot.com/2009/02/layer-124-working-classes.html) I found this on The Independent website today -
A life of rhyme: John Cooper Clarke, the 'punk Poet Laureate', grants Robert Chalmers his first major interview in more than 20 years
This is a wonderful piece of reportage, that had me laughing out loud, and feeling even more in awe of JCC's talent. Do read it.
Lots of JCC's stuff from Zip Style Method, Snap Crackle and Bop, etc, is on Spotify. Including the ever-delightful 'Twat', which always comes to mind whenever I think of that other fave from Salford, Hazel Bloody Blears.
Evidently Chickentown - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGWhjojt5dw
and from The Sopranos http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2DShC4GhVc&feature=related
Beasley Street - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37QUUwp9xIs&NR=1&feature=fvwp
and the words - http://www.cyberspike.com/clarke/beasley.html
Midnight Shift - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7DQRWeTWos&feature=related
Daily Express - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spvvAdAN5bA&feature=related