Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Today lunchtime found me standing in front of the war memorial on Islington green. I was eating my sandwiches while the weather caught its breath; before it tried to soak me again. It’s been one of those days where the world appears to have been placed behind a sheet of dirty glass, like looking out the window of a grimy train. I was standing in front of the war memorial because it was too wet to sit down, but too windy to stand out in the open. With that peculiar curiosity that comes with sufficient bread for a few minutes thoughtful chewing, I was examining the war memorial, taking in every detail.

It’s unusual, you see, no lists of names, no campaigns fought. There are four stone slabs set into the ground – air, sea, land, home – and a giant granite ring, 4 metres in diameter and as thick as an old tree, propped up against the low stone wall like a wreath. It’s obviously a modern creation, and a discreet tablet set into the grass nearby mentions that it replaced an older, probably crumbling memorial, probably at great expense. I like it, though. Despite its modernity, it manages, though being enigmatic in its minimalism, an appreciable likeness of the stomach churning impact that those old crosses, covered from base to tip in names, tend to create.

I’m fascinated by things like this, with the mechanics of mass grief. I know it’s a little macabre, but it’s such an interesting area of study. The struggle to memorialise the lost has created, perversely, some of the most beautiful artistic and symbolic statements humanity has managed, tokens of collective remorse for mankind’s many sins. Also, these memorials speak volumes about the society in which they stand (the best example of this being the Neue Wache.)

What I find interesting is the point in history when these memorials took their current form in the aftermath of the First World War. First of all, though, a little context is needed. Every British schoolchild is told the figures, but I don’t think many people really sit down and think about how they compare. The total coalition losses in Iraq since the invasion, for example, probably add up to less than the casualties of the first five minutes of the battle of the Ypres. American losses in the entire Vietnam War equal less than half those of the first Battle of the Somme. At its worst the British army suffered one hundred thousand casualties a month.

When the armistice came, the problem, essentially, was one of scale. When you consider how long it takes life to return to normal after bereavement, you realise the task facing a country that was one million men poorer than it had been just four years earlier, and encumbered countless more scarred and damaged survivors.

If you look at the war memorials of earlier centuries, you see the names are arranged, as in life, by rank and importance – usually only the officers, sometimes only senior officers, get their names on the alabaster; the enlisted dead are recording with a number, footnote-like, at the bottom of the plaque.

With the ones that sprang up on every village green and town square in the years after the armistice, however, the design is different. Each person’s name is recorded, with the same spacing and same font size as all the others regardless of their standing amongst the living. This uniformity is important, both because it gives each life an equal mention, but because it allows the broader scale of the loss to be more easily understood. A mother might look at her son’s name on the stone slab, in writing one inch high, and be able to stand back and look at the list, 10 feet high, and understand that every inch of that represents a loss as great as hers. It provides a visualisation of the numbers, making the loss less abstract.

The origin of this style of memorial is fairly blurry. One explanation I’ve read states that they started with wooden signs found in northern mining towns, as proud roll-calls on street corners, recording all the young men who’d joined up to fight for queen and country. As fewer and fewer came home with each battle, however, the significance of the names listed began to change, and at some stage these lists were simply repurposed, the survivors’ names taken off and the inscriptions changed. It’s a nice idea, yet I think that the truth of the matter was rather less organic.

In the years that followed the armistice, the countries of Europe found themselves in a situation that no one really knew how to deal with. There wasn’t a precedent or established procedure for understanding and remembering the violent, early deaths of 20 million people. Society, as a whole, had to figure it out from scratch. The traditions of mass mourning that we are familiar with today – the minute’s silence, the tomb of the unknown warrior, the uniform lists of names – are in fact, mostly the result of the ideas of single people, of clergymen and poets, statesmen and soldiers, who had to invent a way for the country as a whole to quantify and comprehend their loss.

The most interesting of all of these ways is the aforementioned unknown warrior. His story is covered in more detail than I have space for here. He is, most importantly, more than an unknown soldier – because he is unknown, he could be any of them, and therefore, with a sort of quantum logic, he is all of them. This was so important because the unknown soldiers of a war of choking, liquid mud and easily corroded dogtags are still dug out of Flanders fields to this day.

Nonetheless, the living need to live, and the easiest way for them to do this is to mark their respect on appointed days but, for most of the year, block the whole experience out. It is in this context that the blind eye turned to the Third Reich for so long becomes more understandable. Modern eyes can look at see the inevitable descent into war that was so little opposed by the world’s leaders, but at the time, the spectre of another war, of another generation lost, was more than most could bear to consider.

I look at these memorials and can't help but think that if there is a god, then his relationship with humanity must be similar to that of an abused spouse and their partner. We commit these terrible, unforgivable acts, and he readies the thunderbolts and floods - ready to give up and start over, but then we are so eloquent in our remorse, and sincere in our resolve never to do it again that he's mollified. At least, until he sees the next mountain of skulls, and it starts all over again.