We’re beguiled by a big agonising lie
THE grass was already doing its work by the time the Tutsi general arrived at his home village in Rwanda in the early days of July 1994. Immediately he noticed the eerie silence – and the complete absence of family and friends. All the Tutsis were gone.
They had all been butchered in a savage orgy of genocide perpetrated by their Hutu neighbours. During 100 days of madness an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were murdered as Bill Clinton and the great powers looked on.
It didn’t take the Tutsi general long to find that place, with its telltale signs of disturbed topsoil and fresh grass trying to establish its claim. Under that grass, their bodies were wrapped together in a fearful, grotesque tribute to man’s capacity for evil.
So, what would you have done if you were him, that Tutsi general, alone in that awful place in 1994?
Gathering the local Hutus he brought them to that spot. And he ordered: ‘Dig them up. Pile up the bodies in the open, in full view. And see for yourselves what you have done.’
And there the bodies remained, thousands of them under the scalding African sun, for weeks on end. The stench hung over the area as a constant, unavoidable reminder of the tragedy of war and murder and hate.
Ever since I visited that horrible site in 2004, 10 years after the Rwandan disaster, I’ve been thinking about that Tutsi general. Thinking about his visceral integrity, his determination to understand and reveal the awfulness of death and warfare. And how we, here in the West, are largely incapable of such naked honesty. We prefer our cemeteries, built to exacting geometric measurements; we love the layout, the trees, shrubs and roses.
And we are pleased by the grass, manicured to perfection as it rests gently upon the countless remains of men butchered on an industrial scale.
We are pleased by art installations commemorating the soldiers whose lives were taken from them without anything approximating to permission. We are charmed by the Haunting Soldier, six metres tall, that now guards one of the entrances to Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green.
We are fascinated and enticed by the display of 36,000 leaf-shaped messages hanging from the ceiling of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
And we are beguiled by the 19,240 hand-made, shrouded figures now on display in London – one for each of the Allied soldiers that ‘fell’ on July 1, 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme during World War I.
We admire the beauty of all those things, the plaques, the stainedglass windows, the white crosses, the marching bands and military displays, the cenotaphs and buglers with their utterly engaging Last Post salute at the Menin Gate.
And all the while we fail to recognise that it’s all a deflection, a denial, a collective act of mass deception – a big, agonising lie.
Truth is, we don’t really want to see the true horrors these poor soldiers in the First World War had to endure; we avert our eyes from the indignites they suffered, the brutality inflicted upon them and the unspeakable anguish they passed on to others.
We wrap them up in courage and heroism, honour and valour when we know in our hearts that war is the very opposite of those things.
Worst of all, we surrender ourselves every year on this day, November 11, to the dreadful fable that these soldier victims of empires and great powers will never be forgotten. And we never truly ask ourselves, what good is remembering somebody who wasn’t allowed to live a full life?
WE FALL, over and over again, for that witless sentimentality spouted by politicians, kings, queens and military types, that we look after our war dead, a notion boorishly reflected in Bruce Springsteen’s bulls*** song, We Take Care Of Our Own.
But all we’ve done is sanitised war, anaesthetised ourselves to the ugliness and depravity of conflict – and built beautiful cemeteries, monuments and art works to help us avoid the pain.
That Tutsi general must have been a fan of one of America’s greatest poets Carl Sandburg, who recognised the power of grass – for covering things up, for allowing us to forget, to deflect and move on – in his wonderful poem of that name, published exactly 100 years ago after the end of the war.
Its eloquence speaks for itself: