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Friday, November 11, 2011

In Remembrance of Armistice Day

Today was Armistice Day but I did not wear a red poppy.

Today, 93 years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month a haunting stillness fell upon Europe's battlefields as acrid smoke dispersed into the sky. In the bomb-plowed ground, red poppies bloomed.

I was nowhere in existence then but I was taught to fix a poppy onto my coat, to stand and ponder the vileness of war, the evanescence of peace and the tragedy of a species that is left to remembrance of its folly.

"What passing bells for those who died as cattle?"

But today, Armistice Day, lies buried under a heap of War Days and loud remembrances of heroes gone to wars.

What shadow of civilization have we become that we number our mass murders like cattle and pretend to remember the nameless fallen? Is it not obscene? Today is not “Veterans Day.” Today is not a one-for-all size “Remembrance Day” of service in war. Armistice Day marked an existential passing for a species that had shown its true quintessence.

World War I was the Great War. It was great because it was absolutely senseless and destructive of all sensibility save despair.

The World War -- that is, the one which really did engulf the world 21 years later -- killed six times as many humans beings with a diabolical murderousness that rivaled the fires of hell. But there were grievances and causes and, hence, reasons for war, misbegotten as they might have been. There was no reason for the Great War.

Historians have sought in vain for some tissue of a reason to cover the depravity of mass suicidal slaughter. The war was caused, it is said, by interlocking alliances, or by national jealousy, or by the building of boats or of a desert railroad. But none of these attempts explain what was the supposed advantage to be gained or the alleged grievance to be settled by marching off to war. The true explanation was the one offered by the historian, Emil Ludwig: the Great War was unleashed by two very, very bored aristocratic junior diplomats in Vienna. In other words, the cause of a senseless war was itself senselessness.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
---Cecil Spring-Ryce (I vow to Thee My Country)
The Great War was great because it was a pure war, intrinsic and pristine like a bloody sacrament.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
---Wilfred Owen (Anthem for Doomed Youth)

Just as senseless was the devotion with which men just threw themselves into the daily dread of killing and being killed in numbers that staggered the imagination. This was not strategic carnage but ritualized suicide. Four years, day after day, men rose up from the within the earth, ran into a leaden rain and fell back dead into the muck oozing with blood.

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
--- AE Houseman

And being young, men were lifted upward by shimmering allures of Faith! Country! Freedom! and, above all, Honour! until one by one all the noble sentiments too were slain and lay befouled in the muck oozing with blood.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
--- Wilfred Owens (Dulce et Decorum)
The Great War was great because Man emerged from the clouds of smoke and gas knowing that he had become more senseless than a beast.

“Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle now long since ironed, can laugh among the dying unconcerned."
--- Wilfred Owens (Insensiblity)

And a lover of death.

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead ...

Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
-- Edward Thomas (Rain)

The Great War was great because, like no war before it, it hollowed out the soul and left civilization a mere husk of appearances.

“After the shells ... and the gas, the bullets were like the gentle rain from heaven ... I cannot say I suffered anything; having let my brain grow dull”
---Wilfred Owens

Senseless in purpose, senselessly begun, begetting senselessness, the Great War rendered civilization itself senseless.

“Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
as we miss the march of this retreating world”
---Wilfred Owens

No war has produced such poetry, for in no other war was the overweening hope of civilization so cast down into the nightmare of senselessness and despair. All war is stupid and its teasing vainglory exacts a vengeful price. But the Great War was a pure communion with death that revealed Europe’s marbled cities to be white washed sepulchres. It is only through understanding the existential passage traversed in the Great War that we can comprehend the unique essence of that day when the passage ended.

For if despite all progress, Man relapsed into murdering suicide; and if every courage and every lofty hope and every cowardice and every sordid lust was cut down equally in the muck oozing with blood, then there was no hope greater than that we might from time to time relapse into Armistice.

Armistice. A time to remember that peace is but a pause in the pace of war.

For years that day, that pause and that dismissal silence was marked by two minutes of stillness throughout the land

What passing bells? None.

leaving us to ponder in pitiful poverty

What have we done?
for we know not what we do

Once the pause was turned from a confession of senselessness into a commemoration of those who died in battle, and the ones thereafter and after that and thence of all veterans proudly "flesh-marked by the Beast", the holy and awful memory of Armistice Day was whored to war.

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.
---Wilfred Owens

Subtly and vilely the remembrance of a tenuous and evanescent peace has been corrupted into a celebration of heroic sacrifice in war; tricked out as always with sham affect and easy tears for the fallen while urging the young ever more to live the old lie and die.

What a defilement that we should remember Armistice Day even while, at the very moment, engaged in war.

No. I did not wear a poppy today. It was stolen from me.

Wilfred Owen’s mother received notification of his death on 11 November 1918.

©WCG, 2011