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OLD LIE. NEW UNIFORMS.

25-10-2007

Poppy

Blimey. Is it that time of year already? The clocks haven't gone back yet and we're already being reminded of Remembrance Sunday. Laurence Inman suggests there's something else we shouldn't forget....The Old Lie that has led millions of young men to their death.

I'm writing this on 23rd October. Already two news presenters have appeared on the telly wearing poppies. It is 19 days until Remembrance Day. Is it me, or has anyone else noticed an atmosphere of competition developing in this matter: who can be the first to wear one, and when is the earliest you can get away with it? A bit like the Christmas decorations in shops.

I quite like seeing people wearing poppies around this time of year. I don't buy one myself because I regard the whole thing as being part of what Wilfred Owen called 'The Old Lie.'

The Lie is necessary if the State hopes to persuade thousands of young, fit men, who have everything to live for, to leave their settled lives and go abroad to risk having their bodies blown to shreds, probably for the sake of whichever global conglomerate has the biggest clout with the current 'government.'

The Lie, like many good stories, is issued in instalments.

First, the enemy are faceless, inhuman sadists who threaten our very existence. We can't talk to them. Extreme violence is the only language they understand. Didn't the Huns come disguised as nuns in 1914 and bayonet babies in front of their mothers?

Second, if you go you're a hero. Everyone will look up to you. If you don't go you'll be despised. Third, if you die you will have 'fallen for your country.' Last, everyone will know you've 'made the ultimate sacrifice' because we'll carve your name in stone on a memorial and stand around it feeling sad every November.

And yet, and yet.....

Sam Johnson once declared that 'every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.'

When I was a kid all the men in my family had had some experience of the armed services. My Dad and a few uncles had fought in the war. My younger uncles did National Service and one famously ran away and joined the Navy.

I eagerly asked them questions but they never glorified it, or exaggerated their roles in it. Instead they emphasised the boredom, discomfort and sheer terror of combat.

Running away from battle was common, for instance. Also, very few people actually fired their weapons, ever. This is well documented. The number of people who fired at, and killed, an enemy soldier is tiny. It takes a lot to kill a fellow human face to face, even if he's the enemy, even if he might kill you.

My Dad was in the Army for ten years, from 1936 to 1946, and never actually fired at anyone. He was in the Western Desert, Normandy and Germany.

One of my uncles was shot in the shoulder. 'It wasn't not a sharp pain at all,' he told me. 'It was like being hit very hard with a cricket bat.' When he tried to move his shoulder it made a sound like crunching biscuits. He was twenty and had only one eye.

In the Great War, if you were hit, you had as much chance of dying from an infection caused by the bit of filthy uniform entering your wound with the bullet as from any internal damage caused by the bullet itself. Many people in combat are injured by flying bits of fellow soldiers and their equipment if they happen to be nearby when they are struck.

It's a grim business. Few people can still have illusions about 'heroism' or 'chivalry.'

Just enough, it seems, to keep the numbers up when the likes of Tone decide to send them off to some scrappy corner of the Middle East to make the world safe for Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

I like the look of the new memorial site in Staffordshire. At some time I will probably go and visit it. I just wish they hadn't left all those panels blank for the names of the kids who'll be killed in the future.

(See also "Them And Us - Even in Death")

Do politicians still tell the Old Lie, or can war ever be justified?

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