My oxymoronic headline is an attempt to explain what I am witnessing today, November 11th, the 100th year commemoration of the end of WW1.
What the day is about is remembrance. Remembering the lives and the deaths of ordinary men and women who gave their lives for freedom, for peace, for God, Country and Corps. That last bit is the bit that gets me. The Corps.
The ceremonies of remembrance are, first and foremost, a grand day out for the military. In Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, during the ceremony a military honour guard paraded to take station at the stands where poppy wreaths are to be laid. During the drill the plate of medals attached to the chest of one of the soldiers came loose, swung away from his chest, and fell to the ground.
In that moment I asked if this was perhaps a good thing. Those medals represent the peak of military achievement by that man, that soldier. Why, at a ceremony to mark futility of death in battle, do we celebrate our soldiers. We allow the military to own these ceremonies. They don their finest uniforms, polish their boots, oil their rifles, raise their flags and march with great precision to the glorification of their corps, their battalion, their unit, division, brigade, regiment, whatever.
On a day when we should be repudiating war we celebrate the soldiers. We are effectively telling those soldiers “if you are lucky we could be praying for you here someday, when you gloriously die in battle”.
Instead of wearing their finery perhaps it would be better if we asked our soldiers to attend these events in civilian dress. No marching, no military bands, no pipe or fife and drum.
Cover up your medals, store them away. Roll up your flags and place them in a cupboard. Lay away your uniform. Lock away your weapons. Let the solemnity of the occasion be fractured by the shouted commands of military drill. Carry a flower and a handkerchief.
Suicide in the trenches; by Seigfried Sassoon
I knew a simple soldier boy
who grinned at life in empty joy,
slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
and whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
with crumps and lice and lack of rum,
he put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
who cheer when soldier lads march by,
sneak home and pray you’ll never know
the hell where youth and laughter go.