Memorial day makes me uneasy. It seems like a day for cathartic communal sadness. The sadness of loss, of lives cut short, the sadness of gravestones and poignant black and white photographs. I think that today we let ourselves forget that war isn’t sad. It’s horrific.
That’s what we should remember. The horror people were forced to endure while alive, the lice and the mud, the crippling shell shock, the constant stream of butchered, nameless corpses. The soldiers shot at dawn for “cowardice” and “desertion” of various kinds. Otherwise known as PTSD, or the limits of human endurance. How do we remember those men? How do we remember those who shot them? How do we remember the meaningless, unjustifiable war that cost Europe a generation?
I agree that we can’t afford to forget the betrayal of “doomed youth” and the immense value of those lives lost. But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the pomp and circumstance. Many of those killed in the Great War did not give their lives. They had them taken. And as Siegfried Sassoon tells us, a monument or moment’s silence doesn’t forgive that:
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, –
These doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Here was the world’s worst wound
And here with pride. ‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
Was ever and immolation so belied?
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
– Siegfried Sassoon