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Image The Cenotaph, Whitehall, Sir Edwin Luteyns 1919-20. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2013.

The next two years are going to see a huge number of military anniversaries. Next year will be the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The ‘Twenty Years Crisis’ as E.H. Carr termed it is becoming history. There are already no living British veterans of the First World War and the number of Second World War veterans is decreasing. To paraphrase the Ode of Remembrance, the sun is going down and we can only remember them. The means by which we negotiate these events – what Susan Rubin Suleiman has termed ‘crises of memory’ – is likely to feature prominently in these posts.

This memory-work, though, will be done against a backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, projected for ‘drawdown’ by the end of 2014. After a meeting with Anders Fogh Rasmussen last month, President Obama has proposed a NATO summit to discuss the withdrawal – as he put it, to ‘underscore this final chapter in our Afghan operations’ – for 2014.

Counting the cost of the Afghan campaign is, however, well underway. A front-page story in The Guardian last week announced the publication of a book by Frank Ledwidge: Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War. The article outlines the book’s claims, including an estimated cost of ‘at least £37bn’, 444 British troops killed, 2600 wounded and more than 5000 he terms ‘psychologically injured’. In addition to which Ledwidge claims that more than 500 Afghan non-combatants have been killed. The article notes that half of these have been admitted by the British government. As to whether the war is winnable, Ledwidge is quoted as being dismissively derisive:

“Once the last British helicopter leaves a deserted and wrecked Camp Bastion, Helmand – to which Britain claimed it would bring ‘good governance’ – will be a fractious narco-state occasionally fought over by opium barons and their cronies.”

The article came to my attention via a Tweet from Owen Jones, who distilled the article in the following way:

As someone who has engaged with various forms of memorial practice, I was struck by the way in which Jones had emphasised the number killed. With full respect for the fact that anyone’s death is a tragedy, there is an interesting shift in our response to Afghan casualties that deserves to be considered in the context of its historical evolution.

Looking at the BBC website for the casualties I was reminded of the 2007 project Queen and Country by the artist Steve McQueen, intended to remember those killed in Iraq through facsimile sheets of postage stamps bearing images of the dead. I viewed the work when it was at the Imperial War Museum and was struck by its patient dignity: the sheets are only visible one at a time, forcing the viewer to engage with each casualty as a discrete loss of life.

In one sense this is a continuation and modernisation of a memorial form that has endured throughout the twentieth century’s violent history: the list of names. The United Kingdom National Inventory of War Memorials (UKNIWM) has records of 64,000 of an estimated 100,000 war memorials in the UK, and many of them bear lists of those killed from a particular institution or locality. Entering the name of Godalming, the small Surrey town where I live, into the search engine produced results for the town, in the parish church and for a municipal roll of honour, as well as for the memorial cloister and plaque at Charterhouse School. Although the search only produces some of the individual names (those recorded at Charterhouse), the list of the fallen is central to the form of memory involved. This is a pattern replicated across the country – the Cenotaph at Southampton, for example, was inscribed with 1,997 names in 1922, though research by Tony Kushner of Southampton University apparently suggests that this excluded the names of members of the Jewish community.

The Southampton Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edwin Luteyns, the designer of the Cenotaph in Whitehall (and coincidentally a resident of Godalming). Originally commissioned in 1919 as a temporary monument in wood (the original was kept by the Imperial War Museum until its destruction in a WW2 air-raid), the stark simplicity of the design bears neither names of the fallen nor religious motto. Instead two stone wreaths and the words ‘The Glorious Dead’ invite the viewer or participant to think about its meaning. This blank quality opens the memorial to different meanings and has allowed it to transcend its origins in the aftermath of a specific conflict to act as a focus for the national act of remembrance of all conflicts.

At the core of these efforts to remember, however, is a dialectic between the event being remembered and the form in which this is done. In other words, what an event commemorates will determine the form of memorial that is most appropriate – and conversely, the form of memorial can tell us a great deal about what is being remembered.

ImageA useful example here is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. which takes the list of names as its basis. The description on the artist’s website (click the quote for the link) brings out the three key elements: names, closure and geographical location at the heart of the national capital. The idea is that, as the National Parks Service puts it, it is a ‘Wall that heals’, by providing a place where those who served or lost friends and relatives can be reasonably certain of finding the name of the person they are remembering, a process facilitated by printed and online registries. So the form of the memorial tells us that this was a bloody war (there are currently 58,261 names) of long duration (the casualties are ordered over a period of fourteen years). The subdued quality of the memorial – with no heroic figures or waving flags, unlike the Marine Corps memorial in the same city – suggests that this was a defeat. But perhaps counting the cost in this very personal way turns even a victory into a defeat: perhaps the most striking of Luteyns’s memorials, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, has the names of more than 72,000 soldiers with no known graves inscribed into its fabric: a consequence of weapons which not only killed but obliterated.

So what does this mean for our forms of remembering our own war, here and now? It would be easy and inappropriate to simply suggest a glib contrast between the names on the Vietnam Memorial or at Thiepval and the 444 deaths recorded on the BBC (though Ledwidge’s comment above clearly invokes Vietnam as a comparison). To their families and friends, these deaths were and are shattering events: read the account by the Rev. Stuart Hallam of the death of 22 year-old Lieutenant John Thornton on 30th March 2008 in the collection of testimonies relating to Thornton’s death. After giving the last rites, Hallam writes:

I remembered that the lads were still waiting outside for news – but I was in bits, so before I went to see them I found a quiet room and wept… Then I went outside and told them that JT was dead.

As a political liberal who has concerned himself with the history of genocide, I have to concede the use of armed conflict in addressing certain kinds of situation at the same time as I deplore the loss of any life. In Rupert Smith’s intriguing book The Utility of Force, he sets out criteria for the successful use of military action:

To apply force with utility implies an understanding of the context in which one is acting, a clear definition of the result to be achieved, an identification of the point or target to which the force is being applied – and, as important as all the others, an understanding of the nature of the force being applied.

Smith’s set of tests can be applied with a little alteration to the critiquing of memorials. This may seem a frivolous exercise for the armchair peacenik but to me it seems that questioning the terms in which the last war is remembered is an essential part of preparing for – and perhaps avoiding – the next one. No one can make any certain pronouncements in the face of the individual tragedies created by such moments. And yet, I am moved to wonder whether this kind of very personal memorial would have been possible in other conflicts; whether our ability to pay personal homage to individual coffins arriving home does not reflect a kind of luxury that we should perhaps value more highly in asking questions about whether and how armed force is deployed. Because the marking of the individual death is a result of the economic, cultural, political and military power that allows us to make war in a fashion that is ‘asymmetric’, which is why our roll of honour can be contained within a single webpage or memorial. Which makes it no less honourable.

We have come a long way at great human cost since Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce et Decorum Est. We value individual suffering and deplore injustice in ways that many of those who fought a century ago would struggle to comprehend: there is, though, clearly some way to go. I honour the memory of those who die by trying to make my world better.

Frank Ledwidge’s Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, was published last week by Yale University Press, RRP £18.99. The words of Rev. Stuart Hallam are taken from Helmand: Diaries from Front-Line Soldiers, Osprey, Oxford 2013.

The family of John Thornton set up a charity in his name, The John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation, www.jtyaf.org