Entry from November 29, 2009

In the most recent issue of The Times Literary Supplement, Kate McLoughlin reviews Peter Parker’s Harry Patch: The Last Veteran and the Legacy of War (Fourth Estate, 328 pp. £14.99), a whole book about the last surviving British veteran of World War I, who died last July at the age of 112. That such a substantial volume should be devoted to the life of a man whose only notable accomplishment was living longer than any of his comrades-in-arms does not strike Ms McLoughlin as being in the least odd. Her review essay, presumably like the book itself, is really not about the late Mr Patch but about what the British call “Remembrance” — that is, the formal commemoration in theory by the nation as a whole, begun in response to Harry Patch’s war, of those who have died in war. You can tell because it makes a difference to her that, by the luck of the draw, Mr Patch was not one of the many proud veterans of that war but one of those who harbored a sense of resentment against the country that sent him to war. The chip on Mr Patch’s shoulder was carried for nearly a century.

My guess is that this made a difference to Mr Parker as well. Without his subject’s curmudgeonliness, this book would not have been written. The reason is that the ceremony of remembrance has survived because it means two quite different things simultaneously. To those who are still of the mind of its founders and institutors, it is purely a gesture of respect to those who made a willing sacrifice for their country, and the gesture is important partly because they believe such sacrifices are and always will be necessary as a matter of course if the country is to survive and retain its identity. But to an increasing number of those who join them in this commemoration, the gesture is not one of respect but of pity, the sacrifice being commemorated not a necessary one but pointless and empty, something to be resented as Harry Patch resented his sacrifice and that of his comrades. As Ms McLoughlin concludes her review: “their death takes from us not just a human trace of the trenches, but a living reminder that remembrance should be painful, unsentimental and monitory — or else it is not worth doing at all.”

In other words, remembrance is a utilitarian and a political act. It is not worth doing if it does not make the pacifist and utopian point that war is unnecessary — not just Harry Patch’s war but any war. For there can be no monitory function to the remembrance ceremony if the Great War was a one off, a unique exercise in pointlessness. The assumption is always, especially in the perspective provided by the world’s wars since 1945, that the 1914-18 war was typical of all wars in its mistakenness. And even the war of 1939-45 was mistaken in the sense that it, too, could have been avoided without the disastrous Treaty of Versailles and the bungled statesmanship on the part of the First World War’s victorious allies which produced it. The dead are always to be commemorated not for their own courage and patriotism but for the political screw-ups that may be supposed to have sent them to war in the first place.

I’m afraid this view of war and remembrance is the more common one today in Britain, where the media are at present full of excitement at the prospect of a finding by the Chilcot inquiry —which it has clearly been set up to deliver — that Britain’s participation in the Iraq war was a mistake, if not a crime. This is also the majority view among the political and media elites (at least) in America. Barack Obama rode a wave of Patch-like resentment over Iraq into the White House last year, and now he is finding that those he helped teach to think of Iraq as an unnecessary war are not inclined to believe in Afghanistan as being any more necessary. This is what comes of playing politics with national security. It is the easiest thing in the world to campaign on a platform of woulda, shoulda, coulda, and the media loves it because of the infinite possibilities for scandal-mongering. The latest example is a Senate report offering supposed “proof” that American forces, and thus the Bush administration, missed a chance to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in December, 2001. Mr Obama bids fair to test the limits of this sort of campaign by continuing to blame George W. Bush for all his troubles, and for as long as possible into the next administration. But that is always the ruse of the utopian, whose political appeal depends on that perfect future which never arrives but in which dreadful sacrifices, like dreadful things in general, are sure to be abolished.

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