Tuesday 16 July 2019

Military displays at remembrance events are a grotesque offence to the war dead

Tribute: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with Prince William
Tribute: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with Prince William

'Lest we forget' - a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem warning against jingoism, composed to mark Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 - has become synonymous with the World War I dead.

The evocative sentiment is carved into numerous war memorials. But despite the carnage of the trenches, amnesia did set in, and war has never been eradicated. Even as the centenary of World War I's outbreak is commemorated, battles are being waged on a number of fronts. In Gaza - slaughter. In Iraq - torture and killings. In Syria - civil war. In south Sudan - ethnic violence. In Ukraine - Russian-backed rebellion.

Let us juxtapose those wars, where civilians are murdered or maimed and where soldiers torture other combatants, against the commemorations for the 1914-18 war. And let us ask ourselves: why lay wreaths and bow heads without changing behaviour?

The cult of ultra-nationalism, which can lead to warmongering, continues to hold sway around the world. Ultra-nationalism stems from many sources, but militaristic trappings feed it. Military pomp and circumstance is a key part of the choreography of World War I ceremonies, but it must be set aside. The only appropriate way to remember the carnage is to strip out the martial trimming. No flags, no gun salutes, no weapons, no medals, no military bands. Civilians must reclaim these events. Soldiers are free to attend, as any citizen should be. But leave the uniform in the wardrobe.

Instead, we saw standards carried by soldiers in regimental berets into Dublin's Pro-Cathedral at a service last Sunday. We saw be-medalled men in the front row. A church is no place for military symbols.

The voices of the Irish war dead are poignant. It is appropriate to acknowledge their contribution, with up to 40,000 Irishmen killed in the conflict, and more than 200,000 engaging in combat. Extreme caution needs to be taken that violence isn't glorified - or that the utter futility of that war isn't lost amid the dates, death tallies and lists of battles. The needless sacrifice of these young men who went to war for a variety of different reasons, from a thirst for adventure, to loyalty to the British empire - must be acknowledged, of course. But the military accoutrements at many of the services are tilting these solemn occasions - they jar them and set them askew.

Military trappings drum up support for warfare, and present it as a noble calling. The formalities associated with honouring the casualties of war help to negate the horror of those deaths.

My eye was caught by a phalanx of soldiers at a ceremony in Belgium on Monday, attended by President Higgins on behalf of the Irish people.

They wore camouflage uniforms as they stamped and wheeled and paraded. They had rifles on their shoulders. Their camouflage masked the reality of death. Military observances, confident in their centuries-old pageantry, draw a veil over the horror and concentrate on the glory of the sacrifice.

The President was among heads of state at a service in Liege in Belgium, where fighting first erupted on August 4, 1914. The event was saturated with military honours. Soldiers helped the Belgian king to lay his wreath, while the Belgian Royal Air Force band played a selection of military marches at the event.

Britain's Prince William wore his credentials as a former serviceman on his chest, two medals glinting as he delivered his speech. At another event elsewhere, Prince Harry, who served as an Apache co-pilot/gunner in Afghanistan, read a letter from the front by a long dead soldier: "…If I should get bowled out - well, it can't be helped". Those words burnish the myth of war as a jolly adventure.

But the focus on the fallen highlights their idealism, heroism, willingness to be sacrificed - the waste is emphasised less.

What happened to them should be marked. But not by martial means. A line is close to being crossed, if it has not already been strayed over, by the oppressive weight of militarism at such services.

I welcome the change of attitude which allows families to be proud of relatives who fought in World War I. We have learned to accept, at last, the nuances whereby it was possible to wear a British uniform and yet be an Irish nationalist, as in the case of the poet Francis Ledwidge. He joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and survived Gallipoli, only to be blown to pieces in a trench in 1917.

Before his death, he wrote an epitaph for one of the executed 1916 leaders, 'Lament for Thomas MacDonagh', which became his own elegy: 'He shall not hear the bittern cry/In the wild sky, where he is lain,/Nor voices of the sweeter birds/Above the wailing of the rain.'

Lest we forget, as Kipling urged, the world is still at war. Ours is an era where Palestinian civilians are slaughtered, where trussed Iraqi soldiers are forced to chant slogans before executions. This is no era in which to ritualise the World War I fallen, or any of our dead.

Martina Devlin

Irish Independent

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