Dying in war is special

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Dying in war is special


A war memorial at Ypres. (photo: jjay69)

Sometimes a slight is delivered purposefully and deliberately. But sometimes, more often perhaps, hurt feelings are the by-product of good intentions. Such a set of misunderstandings risks leading us into dangerous and disrespectful territory on the question of commemorating the first world war. The war is remembered largely as a tragedy rather than a victory. While the second world war has the benefit of central casting baddies—with skull and crossbones insignia and genocidal impulses—the first world war is the story of a family needlessly torn apart.

It is this narrative, in part, that has created the possibility that, as we remember the centenary of the war’s first shots, we will officially commemorate the dead of both sides. This move, reported in the Sunday Times, is endorsed by Andrew Murrison, the government’s special representative for centenary events, and is supported by the Canadian government, amongst others. It would mean the names of Germans being projected alongside the dead of England and the Commonwealth as part of a special remembrance installation.

The logic behind this measure is that the commemoration of war dead is simply an act of mourning for the loss of life. We gather around the Cenotaph, so the thinking runs, in order to remember the dead and to express our sorrow at the horrors of war. That makes it natural to include our one-time enemies when we pay our respects. But this does not really make sense. If we are just remembering lives lost then why do we commemorate lives lost to war? Why doesn’t the Queen lay a wreath once a year at a memorial to the Spanish flu epidemic? Or, if this is about the role of humans in ending one another’s lives, why don’t we demand everyone wear a commemorative broach in honour of the hundreds lost to murder every year in the UK, or the millions around the world?

Because to die in war is special. Those who die fighting for our armed services do so in our name and on our behalf, whether we agree with the particular cause or not. Their deaths are sacrificial. And so to commemorate their deaths through mourning alone is to insult their lives and the virtue of their deaths. We are not just grieving for our fallen soldiers—we are celebrating their deaths too. And we are also, uncomfortable as this may seem, celebrating and remembering their other sacrifice: killing their adversaries. To hold up those who they killed on our behalf as equally deserving of our celebration is to deny the central logic of war—that, together, we recognise a time and a space where it is right for our fellow citizens to take the lives of others.

Including those who were our enemies in our rituals of remembrance also chimes with a peculiar modern idea: the perceived universality of our obligations. Poll after poll shows that British people still cling to the idea of nation, that while they believe in general equality they feel more obliged to British people than others. Yet many in our political class believe that not only are all people equal but that they all must be equal to us. Such thinking—combined with our common story about the first world war and a fundamental misunderstanding of remembrance—inspired this proposal. It’s a well-meaning set of delusions that will, if enacted, insult those whose lives were sacrificed.

In war, we send boys and girls to kill and to die on our behalf. If, a hundred years later, we seek to deny the special covenant that this creates, how can those whom we send to die trust that we will honour their sacrifices? A nation that refuses to prefer its war dead to the dead of its enemies will find itself unable to inspire such sacrifice in the future.

  1. February 7, 2013


    No replies in more than a week since publication.

    Great article, btw. Reading it, I disagreed, in some way, with pretty much every sentence. But from both sides, so you must have been fairly balanced.

    As no-one else gives a damn, I’ll just quote 3 lines and leave it at that:

    If ye break faith with us who die,
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

    Pity no-one cares to comment, btw. From the little I know, I’d imagine that Sassoon and Owen would rather people disagreed with this article than ignored it.

    Perhaps we’ve all, for the best of intentions, broken faith.

    In which case, the minutiae matter not.


    @the author of this piece.

    Please read some of the recent work on WW1, such as Gary Sheffield or Peter Hart. Then re-read Graves. And then the poems of Owen, Sassoon et al.

    And ask yourself this:

    Given that GB/Fr weren’t gonna stop in 1917, so it was only victory or defeat, do you think the Allied dead would rather we had broken during the Spring Offensive in 1918, or that they held, and then won the most stunning total victory that had been seen to date?

    I disagree with the part of the article that implies ww1 (and ww2) are the same as other wars. Total war with conscription is different. I’ve been a pacifist all my life, but I’d have had to have fought in 14-18. That’s the difference for me. We can’t judge these people by our present-day attitudes.

    Yes, it was a victory. (The greatest and GB-led army has achieved, imo.) And the country should know that. And the fact that Montash’s Australian Corps led the way. With the Canadians with the Aussies – our Storm-troops. And that 70k Indians (i.e sub-continentals, modern day Ind/Pak/Bang) died on the Western Front.

    But hey, no-one cares.

  2. February 7, 2013

    Al from Hastings

    I assume that Max Wind-Cowie is in active service in Afghanistan at the moment? If not, WHY NOT? If he desires others to be inspired to sacrifice their lives, then why isn’t he ‘inspired’ to do the same?

    Or is it a case of the establishment sending OTHER people to do their dirty work for them? Is that why they are so keen to “inspire sacrifice”?

    The conclusion of the article is completely wrong. We should not be seeking to ‘inspire’ people to sacrifice their lives – and also kill other human beings – but rather to explain to them (and to ourselves) the necessity of war in those rare situations where it is unavoidable. I doubt many people would run away from defending their country in the event of a genuine invasion by a foreign power, but the current model of war, which involves foreign adventures with dubious justification, is hardly inspiring.

    War is a tragedy, and nothing is more UNinspiring than the bumptious, self-serving glorification of war, in which it is frequently the case, that those who are most removed from the political establishment, pay the highest price.

    Remembrance events which do not provide a sober challenge to the presumptions of the political establishment, are a betrayal of those millions who were driven into giving their (mainly) young lives in the war games of their supposed ‘betters’.

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