The last time I wrote, it was to say how uncomfortable I was about the graphic images of death, suffering and violence in Gaza. But something has changed my mind since. It’s the sanitised, safe, sombre politicisation of the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War.
We’ve had ceramic poppies tipped out of the Tower of London. We’ve had ice sculptures melting on steps. We’ve had a big blade of light shining into the sky. We’ve had tealights in jamjars. It all makes lovely broadsheet photos. We’ve had royals laying wreaths. We’ve had politicians making speeches and laying wreaths. We’ve had politicians politicising wreaths, days after complaining about politicians politicising a political war.
It all seems so squeaky clean, these feeble gestures. But the young and old and rich and poor men who died in the First World War were not little poppies or glowing candles. They were blood and bone torn apart by shells, decapitated by explosions, buried in filth, shredded by machine guns, poisoned by gas, shot through the skull and brain by their own side for suffering trauma.
It seems we are too squeamish to think of their deaths as being human experiences. We prefer to present them as tokens. Never forget, we say, while forgetting the agonies they went through. Never again, we pretend, while romanticising the war machine. We will remember them, we say, while doing an injustice to their memory by denying them the reality of what happened. They are just dots in the distance. We keep on making the same mistakes, making and exporting weapons, deciding that war is just and right if we really believe in it.
No, we need to see the horror of war. We need to know what it means. We need to be reminded, constantly, what happens to the human body when it comes into contact with today’s modern weaponry, just as we should remember what happened to those souls who were ripped apart in 1914-18. If it’s uncomfortable, it should be. It needs to be. Sitting through awkwardness is the least we can do. If it makes us feel terrible, it should. It must be.