Peo­ple mat­ter, not the na­tion or sac­ri­fice


Since I was a boy, the way we re­mem­ber the sol­diers of the First World War has changed. When I was 14, it was only 50 years since the Armistice, and Re­mem­brance Sun­day was solemn and mar­tial: all bu­gles, ri­fles, salutes and Her Majesty. The word “sac­ri­fice” was con­stantly used and while the oc­ca­sion and the wear­ing of pop­pies was not a cel­e­bra­tion of war, it was a recog­ni­tion of the ne­ces­sity to fight wars. It was in that sense a pa­tri­otic mo­ment. It was about the coun­try, not about the peo­ple.

That’s how it had been since 1918. In the af­ter­math of the war, memo­ri­als be­gan to re­place may­poles as the cen­tral fea­ture of vil­lage greens. If you travel the coun­try look­ing at these mon­u­ments, you’ll see they are mostly im­per­sonal. Where fig­ures are carved, they tend to be ide­alised sol­diers: young and ex­pres­sion­less. The jolt comes when you read mul­ti­ple in­scribed names from what ap­pears to be a sin­gle fam­ily.

Un­til re­cently, the “act of re­mem­brance” was es­sen­tially a piety, like school prayers or the mo­ment when, last week, fans ob­served a minute’s si­lence at foot­ball grounds for a Thai bil­lion­aire most of them had never heard of be­fore his death.

In the years im­me­di­ately af­ter the Great War, peo­ple did not dwell on it. Re­turn­ing sol­diers com­plained that those at home did not want to hear about the con­flict; those at home said sol­diers did not want to de­scribe the hor­rors they had seen and com­mit­ted. Both had suf­fered, and their first re­sponse was not so much de­nial as aver­sion. Like a pa­tient re­cov­er­ing from a de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness, they didn’t want to re­call the mis­ery, they just wanted to get well again.

Later, the ap­par­ent fu­til­ity of the con­flict took hold in the na­tional con­scious­ness. War po­ets such as Wil­fred Owen and Siegfried Sas­soon be­came the es­sen­tial voices of a gen­er­a­tion and, from the 1960s, Oh! What a Lovely War and Be­yond the Fringe satirised the whole con­cept of “sac­ri­fice”. The war had been a colos­sal waste; the in­fantry were “lions led by don­keys”, a per­cep­tion pop­u­larised in Alan Clark’s scathing ac­count of British gen­er­al­ship, The Don­keys.

This view reached its apoth­e­o­sis in the 1980s with Black­ad­der Goes Forth. “Not even our gen­er­als are mad enough to shell their own men,” Cap­tain Black­ad­der tells his of­fi­cers, who think a lull in shelling means the war is over. “They think it’s far more sport­ing to let the Ger­mans do it.”

But nearly 30 years since that se­ries was first shown (al­most as long a gap as be­tween the out­break of the First World War and the end of the Sec­ond), we’ve changed the rea­son for re­mem­brance again. To­day, Peter Jack­son’s doc­u­men­tary They Shall Not Grow Old ar­rives in cin­e­mas. In terms of in­for­ma­tion, it doesn’t tell you much you didn’t al­ready know about rats, la­trines, shells, gas, and com­rade­ship.

It’s what Jack­son has done with the pic­tures that is rev­o­lu­tion­ary and in tune with how we think and feel about re­mem­brance to­day. Twenty min­utes into the film, the black and white news­reel footage turns colour. Sud­denly, you are not look­ing at an­cient, al­most en­graved, fig­ures but at real men who

Where even coun­tries ap­peared to have no choice, the in­di­vid­ual seemed not to mat­ter at all

sep­a­rate from their back­grounds and come to life.

This goes to the heart of our view of the cen­te­nary and why we are mak­ing such a big deal of it. The First World War was a meat­grinder, into which choices by dis­tant fig­ures — kaisers, tsars and em­per­ors — set in train an un­stop­pable mo­men­tum to­wards an orgy of vi­o­lence that few had sought.

This in­ex­orable process was suc­ceeded by the in­ex­ora­bil­ity of the war it­self. The war oc­curred de­spite no one want­ing it and was then con­ducted in a way that no one could es­cape. In this process, where even coun­tries ap­peared to have no choice, the in­di­vid­ual seemed not to mat­ter at all.

But this year, we are re­claim­ing the hu­man be­ing in the face of the ma­chine. Jack­son’s film and count­less school and com­mu­nity projects are mak­ing clear that it’s the per­son — not the na­tion or the sac­ri­fice — that mat­ters.

It may seem odd, then, to say that maybe we should stop now and that 100 years on seems a good mo­ment to do it. There are other times and peo­ple and events that re­quire our at­ten­tion. To take one ex­am­ple — also 100 years ago — the world was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a flu pan­demic that killed as many as 50 mil­lion peo­ple. These were real peo­ple too, our grand­par­ents’ and great-grand­par­ents’ gen­er­a­tions, and there is as press­ing a need to re­mem­ber what can hap­pen if a virus mu­tates be­yond our ca­pac­ity to con­trol it, as there is to learn the lessons of un­wanted wars.

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