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Posts Tagged ‘battle fields’

When I was a kid in Portsmouth [UK] there was a naval war memorial on the Common that towered over the promenade and cast a bleak shadow far out over the water to the naval ships passing to and fro up the Solent as the sun set of an evening.  It’s still there and will no doubt be there for a few hundred years more.  I used to paddle in the ornamental fish pond which has now been replaced with a safer alternative, a flower bed that prevents small children like me from jumping in and drowning themselves or trying to round up all the goldfish in a jam jar – or more likely to stop drunken sailors chucking discarded beer bottles over the wall.  When I was a tiddler myself I used to gaze up at the central tower and wonder how many bodies they had stacked up in there.  After all, it didn’t seem feasible that they would spend all that money on concrete and brass plaques and marble columns just to say thanks chaps for sacrificing yourself in some far off pointless war.  I thought there must be some sort of utility to the edifice apart from providing me with a place to swim that was less dangerous than dangling precariously over the lip of the slippery sea-wall to watch the surf below.

The central column put me in mind of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square and indeed Nelson himself left for Trafalgar from the docks at Portsmouth [and came back pickled in a rum barrel but that’s the subject of another blog].  There were lions at the base that the aforementioned drunken sailors liked to feed fish and chips to after midnight and far, far above in the haze I could just make out some sort of stone creatures jutting out around the parapet that I fancied must be the dogs of war.  The column supported a globe and at the base, branching off from the lions, were stark stone walls with brass plaques with names on them – thousands of names – arranged alphabetically into naval categories such as ‘cooks’, ‘artificers’ and ‘gunners’ – neatly inscribed and classified  forever by rank, file and serial number.  It was impossible to attach any meaning or sense of ‘personhood’ to any of these names although I used to try and imagine what D. Dolan Gunner’s Mate might have been thinking when he loaded his last gun and the deck sank beneath him – or what J.Patterson Signaller said in his last transmission.  Was it “Look out – there’s a torpedo – God help us all.”  D. Dolan was probably thinking of his mum.  They say that in extremis we turn back into the little kids we once were calling out for the one who loved us best – crying desperately for her to make all the horror and the fear and the blood and the tears go away.  It wrenches your heart.    

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Spielberg’s ‘Private Ryan’.  It’s a few years old now but it still hits home.  Veterans of the war say that the opening scenes are still capable of triggering flashbacks of that awful day when young men stormed the beaches and were immediately cut down by machine gun fire – or stepped off the landing craft and drowned under the weight of their guns and their gear.   Looking at pictures of the beaches now it’s hard to imagine that such horror was enacted in such a peaceful place.  It’s a real irony too that most of the war-graves sites that surround the old battlefields are quiet and peaceful places given over to the birds and the flowers – and of course the thousands of grave markers stretching away into the gloom.  Remember the poem?  “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row”. Walking through these lovely gardens it would be very easy to forget that beneath the lush green grass lie the bodies of husbands and brothers, fathers and sons, many of them barely out of their teens, barely old enough to shave – let alone die – and for what?  It’s hard to imagine that so many young men could die fighting yet another war.  I’m sorry if that offends you.  At least you might say that World War II was fought against a clearly defined enemy – a genuinely evil tyrant who sent women and children to the gas chambers and the ovens.  But what of other wars?  Vietnam for example – or Korea or Iraq or Afghanistan?   Is there or was there any sense at all in these?

 

The war memorial is meant to honour the dead and to make the rest of us feel national pride in our young men that they could so selflessly give up their lives for a cause.  But what if there is no cause other than political gain and propaganda?  What if they were deluded into laying down their lives not for a cause but for greed, territory, power – and lately – most probably – oil?  The war memorial is less a symbol of heroic sacrifice than it is a symbol of stupidity and greed and this Remembrance Day I will stand by the cenotaph and feel sadness in my heart and shed tears for all those young boys – and wives and mums.  But I will not honour them.  For there is no honour in war – merely violence, suffering, futility, sorrow and pain.

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