We’re beguiled by a big ag­o­nis­ing lie

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT -

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:

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