Loren ipsum pro patria mori
Like a BNP tweet, I am a day late in posting something about Remembrance Day.
As what passes here for the biting cold begins, I found myself rummaging through the coat closet over the weekend for something seasonally appropriate to wear. Hanging in there are all our winter overcoats. They’re are too heavy for out here, instead they’re mothballed and waiting for a time that involves being back on the East Coast or the UK. On one of them, an overcoat that was my father’s, I noticed a pinned remembrance poppy in a lapel; a leftover from a previous November visit home for a family funeral.
I was tempted to unpin the poppy and attach it to the lighter jacket that I had selected as more appropriate for the weather and wear it. People, I reasoned, probably wouldn’t know what it was, and may think it looks slightly silly, but perhaps it would be a conversation starter, the beginning of a discussion about remembrance. But I didn’t do it. Truth be told, to have done so wouldn’t have entirely been a gesture of remembrance of the war dead on my part, it just as much would have been an ornery thumbing of my nose to the testosterone-led, rock soundtrack pumping valorization of the military that the American media seems to constantly grasp for.
It’s late here and there’s something about the paper poppies that I am struggling to articulate on here and apologies for that. On the basis of my social media feeds, it would seem that the poppy display at the Tower of London has received a fair amount of coverage in the US. And while I am sure that it is an incredibly moving sight to see in person, no less a man than Nigel Farage is said to have broken down in tears at the sight of it (further enshrining himself in my mind as the English John Boehner), the smaller, but million times repeated action of coins falling into a British Legion charity box for the right to pin a slightly silly looking paper flower in your lapel remains far more moving.
I have been reading Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme over the last week and this passage struck me
A photograph of the temporary Cenotaph of 1919: soldiers marching past, huge crowds looking on. There is nothing triumphant about the parade. The role of the army is not to celebrate victory but to represent the dead. This is an inevitable side-effect of the language of Remembrance being permeated so thoroughly by the idea of sacrifice. In honouring the dead, survivors testified to their exclusion from the war’s ultimate meaning – sacrifice – except vicariously as witnesses. The role of the living is to offer tribute, not to receive it. The soldiers marching past the Cenotaph, in other words, comprise an army of the surrogate dead.
In an effort to give some sense of the scale of the loss, Fabian Ware, head of the Imperial War Graves Commission, pointed out that if the Empire’s dead marched four abreast down Whitehall, it would take them three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph. Over a million passed by between its unveiling on ii November and the sealing of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb a week later. The correspondence between Ware’s image and what actually took place in 1920 is such that to anyone looking at this photo the soldiers seem like the dead themselves, marching back to receive the tribute of the living. Ware’s hypothetical idea was made flesh. ‘The dead lived again,’ wrote a reporter in The Times.
The Missing of the Somme – Geoff Dyer