War should be remembered for its horrific nature, not its abstract imagery

Tower of London, November 2014

The Friday before remembrance day in 2014, a friend on Facebook announced that The Guardian ought to have “stern words with itself”. The paper had published an admittedly contentious article, its title comparing a memorial art piece at the Tower of London (dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War) as similar to UKIP propaganda.

The following was written in 2014, in response to that Facebook comment.

Let’s not get too hasty. The article made some interesting points beyond its bone-idiotic overture, which doubtlessly fuelled the criticising flames before the meat of the text could be parsed.

I made some mental notes after seeing that post and its trailing comments.

And then I visited the memorial itself, so conveniently close to my home and weekend destination.

Visiting the thing

Hacking through the pedestrian throngs of weekend London holidaymakers and locals to get anywhere in smelling distance of the Thames, it is hard to be surprised by any number or density of humans in one particular spot in the capital. But surprising it was, as I approached the Tower of London, to see quite as many queuing and peering through bobbing heads as there were. Not biblical, mind, but I suppose a justifiable ‘enough’.

Walking down towards the barriers, you are confronted by a minority of vertically-enhanced high-vis jacketed ushers who, for all their megaphone wielding, were effectively whispering as they shepherded the crowds. The paths are mostly single-direction due to the number of visitors, all slowly trudging along the edges of the exterior walls to the moat, peering in towards the … redness.

What the art lacks in informative context, it makes up for in poignant scale.

The sea of packed-together, swaying red ceramic poppies, as if affected by some tidal powers, ripples up and down as it protrudes from the fortress walls outwards. Photographs, despite assumptions, don’t seem to describe the visual effect quite perfectly.

As for the audience; the crowds? Pensive is not a word I’d use to describe them. One parent chuckled as her child remarked “blimey, they’re all over the place”. Another wondered which one was the one she bought. Infact, the only thoughts on the mortal sacrifice each of these poppies was meant to represent was from a little boy who asked “why they all chose to do it”, to which her mother responded, “they didn’t have a choice”. He looked at her puzzled for a few seconds, and then they bought some caramelised nuts and I imagine had a pleasant day out on the bankside.

The mood was pleasant, perhaps ironically.

With cadets and volunteers strolling casually through the ‘fields’ of poppies, nearby prowling fast-food stalls, and almost more phones and cameras than people and plenty of goofy-smiled selfies, the mood was generally ‘nice’. Not jovial, but neither did it have the atmosphere of a memorial to 888,246 violent deaths. In my head, I wondered if the piece might have had more of an effect if the 453 British fatalities of the recent Afghanistan campaign were represented in a nearby patch by their own 453 poppies, for comparison.

The Guardian article offers little diplomacy in its words, but it does hold validity in some of its points. Far from voicing a fiercely unpatriotic, ‘left-wing nut’ opinion, the article criticises the lack of context the artwork provides.

Cenotaphs, £25 collector ceramic roses, parades, etc. Individually, these are beautiful ways to express emotional remembrance for the terrible sacrifices of others. There’s no doubting that, and in that respect the initial Guardian article is naive and unnecessarily contentious.

But where I think the article does make a valid point is with its (provocatively put) ‘this is UKIP tosh’ sentiment. British society has done much to make remembrance of the war purely about the romanticism of sacrifice and adopted an irrational ‘we did our duty; we suffered; we sorted out those enemy folk’ mindset — an unquestioning patriotism which might’ve been necessary in that tremendous struggle and era of history, but that has been unnecessarily propelled into the present.

Today large sections of society place themselves on a scale, from quietly uneasy to vocally opposed, to the British government’s use of military force around the world. Whether they be pacifists, isolationists, supporters or even members of the armed forces, they demonstrate that idealised notions of death for one’s country are no longer totally compatible with a democracy such as ours. Our society today is sceptical of conflict, and rightly so.

Was any 1920s post-war report as controversial as the Chilcot Inquiry? Equally, do we today truly realise the scale of horror unleashed a century ago on the continent?

Siegfried Sassoon is recognised as one of the greatest wartime poets, but his art was not reverent of war, but instead deeply communicative of its horrors. It is not snivelling hatred-of-country to suggest that our remembrance 100 years on of the great war has given up on Sassoon’s depiction of war in favour of something much more swallowable, false and deceptive.

From the Guardian article:

“In spite of the mention of blood in its title, this is a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial. It is all dignity and grace. There is a fake nobility to it, and this seems to be what the crowds have come for — to be raised up into a shared reverence for those heroes turned frozen flowers.
“What a lie. The first world war was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.”
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