First World War memorial Winchester UK

War – Where is the glory?

Throughout recorded history people have glorified war. War is practically universal in human culture and equally common around the world is the celebration of it. Celebration as opposed to commemoration, though that boundary may be harder to draw than might be imagined.

The headline image for this post shows a war memorial; commemoration of the fallen. Commemoration is, I think, a good and necessary act for any society. To honour the lost, to acknowledge their sacrifice is just. It is also important for their friends and family as part of the grieving process. It is particularly relevant to a society dragged unwillingly to war by an aggressor. Human societies around the world have always raised memorials to their war dead.

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Glorification, of war itself, is something very different. I first thought about this in the context of the medieval chanson de geste – the epic poetry of the early middle ages – then to the earlier Beowulf and similar Anglo Saxon poetry and some of the Norse sagas. These were popular stories within what were, by our standards, violent societies. Their primary audiences were people wholly familiar with war. The reality of medieval combat was not chivalric and glorious. It was dirty, vicious, bloody and personal. Men fought face to face and hacked at each other in a press of struggling bodies, standing on the fallen, often wading through mud and blood. Yet the poetry and stories are couched in terms of glory and glamour; the fight is to be sought, embraced, even enjoyed. What I cannot understand is why? The rewards for the mighty were large but for the lesser men, it was surely all risk?What were their motivations?

Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

The wider public today are familiar with the industrial scale devastation of the first world war; the blasted landscape, the horrific injuries, the wholesale slaughter, through the lens of the news photographers. The art of the time reflects that developing understanding. The early patriotic confidence of Rupert Brooke was lost with the writer. The pre-war jingoism of Kipling’s poetry changed to biting bitterness after the death of his only son at the battle of Loos in 1915. Other poets of the time experienced the grim reality for themselves, famously Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Both these men had considerable courage under fire, yet they did not glorify war. They did not write about glorious death and heroism to be remembered for all times. They saw and wrote about the horror, the waste, the pity of it. Why is that perspective an apparently modern invention?

A sobering thought is that children across the world, even today, play at war, even when they hail from peaceful places. Not creating things, not avoiding conflict but destruction and violence. It is innate, a reversion to our primate ancestors – think of the aggressive behaviour of chimpanzees. As is the utterly unrealistic perception of risk in that play – they will always survive, pull off the movie trick shot and escape unscathed. Not going to happen kids….

thumbnail Renaissance cover

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