What do music videos have to do with the poppy? (Relax, I did wear one)
This: the vacuousness of the former is indirectly fetishizing the latter. This is a recent development, and it is a Bad Thing.
This is not going to be a pacifistic rant. I don’t swing that way; my understanding of history does not allow for it (that’s a Rant for another day). I have long freely participated in the rituals and displayed the symbols of Remembrance Day, because I think memory of the past and respect for the dead are important (and not because I’ve been shamed into it by some self-righteous internet meme, or blustery bumper sticker). But lately this participation has been taken for acquiescence in a narrative I don’t buy into, and this past weekend, I was sort of tricked into performing a message which I was not made aware of, and did not consent to.
It’s one thing to be a spectator, and have mild reservations about the proceedings. You can keep those to yourself for the sake of general harmony. But to be made an active part of it, under a set of false pretences is quite another thing.
Remembrance Day is an emotional topic, so I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got friends from both sides of the Atlantic who’ve served in Afghanistan. I know one mustn’t allow emotions to cloud one’s judgement, but at the same time I don’t think it hurts to pay attention to people with direct experience of things. I’m not here to talk about Afghanistan. I don’t know how I feel about Afghanistan, or if I have the right to feel anything about Afghanistan. I don’t entirely know how my friends feel about it. They’re good guys, they did what they felt they had to, and if they feel a smidgeon of pride for playing some small part in overthrowing one of the world’s most repressive regimes, I won’t fault them for that. Likewise, if I balk at the indiscriminate drone strikes which wipe out wedding parties, surely, they won’t fault me. War is complicated, messy business, and it’s never about just one thing. I can’t help thinking though, we’re only meant to remember one thing.
While I have tremendous respect for people in uniform, I have far less respect for the politicians who send them into harms way. I do not believe that honour for the former should shield the latter from criticism. I do not think that honest, open debate about the extent of our commitments constitutes disloyalty, nor should a dispassionate examination of our history[i]. Yet the increasingly affected tone of these ceremonies seems to be drowning out but the most jingoistic voices. In this environment, the politician can get away with more and demand more. So the recent tendency to lump all wars into the same ongoing crusade for Freedom strikes me more as political opportunism than respect.
I have been asked during this time to remember the “brave boys and girls away on deployment”, rather than the “reasons they were there”, which I can respect: I am content to remember in silence. But it would be easier if the various Masters of Ceremonies would stick to the deal as well, and not insist on telling me why they were there. Perhaps it does serve the emotional needs of the moment, but there is something about these sermons that strikes me as over-simplified and under-contextualized. To allude to the slaughters of Ypres or Passchendaele without any hint of indignation seem to me incomplete at best. If it’s not the right time for such indignation, when is?
Remembrance Day may only be once a year (and arguably only one minute out of each year), but it does set the tone for to all our subsequent discussions. Perhaps unconsciously, it determines what we decide to remember, and how. So setting the scope of mourning is important. If I choose not to forget the callousness of the First World War generals, or the colossal fuckup at Dieppe, who am I dishonouring?
I take my cues from guys like Joseph Heller, who never regretted serving as an airman in WWII[ii], but still felt obliged to satirize its idiocies in Catch 22. Or the historian/veteran Paul Fussel, who fought in France, insisted on that war’s necessity[iii], but had no patience for its sanitization or romanticization (or for John McCrae)[iv] and certainly would have cringed at the jaunty “Last Post/Old Lang Syne” mashup I had to recently sit through.
I was six years old when I first heard “the Last Post”, and thought it was the saddest song in the world. Quiet, mournful, meditative. Conducive to sober reflection. You could remember your way, and I could remember mine, and at least we could agree it was sad. But now we’ve got a happy version, pomped up by a military band, and with the strains of a drinking tune thrown in for good measure.
I have to ask: who thought this was a good idea?
Someone probably thought the words “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? gelled nicely with the Lest we forget motto. It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Context matters and cultural usage matters, and a New Years Eve celebration ditty does not fit with an Armistice dirge. I’m all for drinking songs, especially those of a wistful character, but would never indulge in one at a military funeral, and humbly submit that this would never be tolerated in a civilian outfit.
The tone for the evening was set: Remembrance Day is a party now. Spread the word.
On this occasion, my choir was scheduled to sing Mozart’s Requiem as part of the proceedings. It was the second time this piece was selected as a Remembrance Day commemoration: even though Requiem was intended as a component of religious worship, and has no martial overtones. It is about death however and this was connection enough.
It is one of the most magnificent pieces ever written, and probably the best venue we’ve ever had the privilege of performing in. The choir was at the top of its game, the orchestra was splendid, the audience rapt. Our voices filled the auditorium and drifted heavenward. . . It was a great experience, dare I say Godly. Yet I did nearly drop my music when I craned my neck and saw what they were displaying behind us.
The lyrics and their translation, superimposed over images borrowed from the warplane Heritage Museum.
Who thought this would be a good idea?
So behind all these “Blessed is he who cometh”, and “Lamb of God who taketh away”s are pictures of smiling soldiers and cheering crowds and, of course, warplanes. And for “Sanctus”, which translates “Holy”, we got a Lancaster bomber. A Lancaster bomber.
What, may I ask, is so Holy about a Lancaster bomber?
|Holy! Holy! Holy!|
So here we get to the nub of things. I am more than happy to wear the poppy and have a moment of silence and offer my humble baritone to the ceremonies, but the one condition I insist on is we commemorate people. People! Breathing, thinking, feeling, dearly departed PEOPLE! I WILL NOT COMEMORATE MACHINES! Especially not death machines. The Lancaster bomber was designed explicitly (exclusively in Marshal Harris’ view) to incinerate non-combatants. Whatever debates there are to be had about the efficacy, necessity or morality of the strategic bombing campaign, for God’s sake you can respect my reservations here! Remembrance Day ceremonies ought to be about people!
It did not get better from there. The lines “May eternal light shine on them, O Lord with Thy saints for ever, because Though art merciful” was superimposed over the smiling faces of some Women’s Auxiliary Brigade, with not a cemetery in sight. The words which may have justified the singing of the piece stripped entirely of their context and even their literal meaning. The one thing we could once agree on – Remembrance Day was a sad occasion to mourn the dead – finally thrown out the window without even the pretext remaining. We’re now literally singing glory and praise to military hardware. Hallelujah!
It was not an accident either. The words were painstakingly translated and typed over topped the images, which were carefully labelled and named in the program. Somebody specifically chose these images. Someone who didn’t care a fig what the words said or meant. The occasion was about war, so one image was as good as any other. This is the mentality of the music video generation: stripping music of its context and relegating it to background muzak for random imagery. Not even a shadow of deference to intention.
In cheesy pop songs this can be forgiven. In a Remembrance Day ceremony, it’s dangerous. I’m not being hyperbolic: a large crowd of people just worshipped a bombing plane. I just told an engine of death that Heaven and Earth were Filled with its Glory. If our society’s supposedly most poignant moments and our supposedly most deeply held spiritual inclinations and the talents of our civilization’s most gifted artists can only advertise engines of death, we are in trouble.
[i] Gwynne Dyer’s Canada in the Great Power Game would be a great place to start.
[iii] The Boys Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe
[iv] The Great War and Modern Memory