This week we remember in particular the dead from the two World Wars. It is right and proper that we should do so. We must always remember that they died for Britain. If we do not remember what they fought for how can we really remember them. If we know nothing of the conflicts in which they fought how also can we remember? Where then would be the substance of our memory? We would not really then be remembering them, but rather indulging in something that was merely about us. Please wear a poppy with pride, but it would be better to read a book about the First World War than to wear a poppy commemorating a conflict you know nothing about except clichés.
I remember, but I refuse to mourn. Every soldier who took part in the First World War would be dead now anyway. What have they lost? They lost some years of life. But are those years of real consequence? Does it really matter if a soldier died when he was twenty or survived and lived to be ninety? The result is the same.
I have followed the anniversaries of the First World War in real time. In 2014 I went through the July Crisis. In September I reflected on the Marne and how the Germans just might have won if they had gone for it. In 2015 I paused at Neuve Chapelle and then again at Loos. This year I spent time thinking about Verdun and on July 1st I found myself crying because of the Newfoundland Regiment and how there were no more young men left in Newfoundland after that day. But still I refuse to mourn.
There is a difference between how those young men died and how most of us die today. There is a difference between the morality of today and that morality that nearly every soldier took for granted one hundred years ago. The way they fought and the sacrifice they made depended on what they believed. But most of us no longer believe.
Faith in Britain has collapsed and has been replaced with a new religion. We worship in surgeries and in hospitals and our gods are called doctors. What matters to us is longevity. If only I can put off death for as long as possible. I will do exercises. I will have check-ups. I will not smoke nor will I drink to excess. By giving up everything I may live to be one hundred. But for what? For pleasure? Simply for the years stretching ahead? Just to avoid the alternative?
In 1950 medicine was not so accomplished. I may have smoked and drunk, I may have eat pretty much what I wanted. With luck I would have lived to be seventy. On average I could have expected those years. But lots of people still lived to be eighty or ninety, some even more. So with all our advances in medicine since 1950, what really have I gained? A few more years. Those years I may spend alone, or in a nursing home or having lost my mind to Alzheimer’s. Our new religion gives us longevity. The high priests tell us what to give up and what to do, so that we can dribble while not even being aware of who we are. This is a religion without a purpose and without a point.
No-one wants to die. The soldiers of the Great War did not want to die, but they were willing to make their sacrifice because in the end there was no loss.
Now when someone loses their life they lose everything. Clint Eastwood puts it well “It's a hell of a thing, ain't it, killin' a man. You take everything he's got... and everything he's ever gonna have...” No wonder then that we treat death with such hysteria, while during the First World War our country took huge numbers of casualties in their stride, with grief that lasted a lifetime, but with dignity and with peace and with quiet.
But a wife in 1916 on hearing that her husband had been killed regretted the years they would have spent together and the children they may have had. Still, although she would regret that she could no longer see her husband, no longer meet and no longer touch him, she would not have thought that he had ceased to exist. This is why I too refuse to mourn.
There is a sure and certain hope. It may be a belief despite all of the evidence. It may be contrary to reason, but without it all I can ever do is mourn and above all else I refuse to mourn.
I think it is for this reason also that First World War soldiers could mock death.
Oh! Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?
Oh! Grave, thy victory?
The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me.
Which soldiers of today could sing such a song? They wouldn’t even get the reference.
The horror of the First World War is not death. “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.” It doesn’t matter in itself whether life is long or short. It is all chance anyway. Each of us could have caught a disease in childhood. Each of us could have had some accident or other. If one hundred years of life is without meaning it won’t gain meaning because it is long. Longevity in itself is of no consequence.
It is for this reason above all that fussy attempts to make us live more healthily are so without purpose. The SNP first made it impossible for us to smoke. They next will make it impossible for us to drink and after that they will make it impossible for us to eat sugar or fry food in fat. What is achieved by this? What purpose does it have? Why do you want more Scots to live to be one hundred? So they can fill up still more old folks homes? Because you will conquer death that way and take away it’s sting-a-ling-a-ling?
Socrates when he was about to drink some hemlock was asked about what he wanted done with his body. He replied that you can do what you want with it, even put it on the rubbish heap. Why was he so unconcerned about the fate of his body? The reason he answered is that it won’t be me.
The bodies that we buried on the Western Front are not the people who died. You may think all that you are is a collection of atoms and molecules subject to decay and disease and death, but what dies is not you.
Everything in your life tells you that you are distinct from matter. Every choice you make is free. You do not feel as if you are subject to the laws of physics and that determinism determines what you think and what you feel and what you do. You are not a thing. I therefore refuse to mourn your death or the death of anyone. What I regret is only that I can no longer see you, touch you, talk to you. But then I am really regretting something about myself not you.
Death on the scale of the First of Second World War fills us with horror. We should remember the lives cut short. But there is the same tragedy in the death of just one of London’s daughters.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
There is a moment in Schinlder’s list when Itzhak Stern says “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” and he is right, but the converse is that each death destroys the world entire at least for the one who dies. The death of one soldier in the First World War is not less tragic than the death of millions or indeed all the deaths that have occurred in all of the wars put together. For this reason the poet is right to conclude “After the first death, there is no other.”
And still I refuse to mourn. I remember. I grieve. I miss. But I don’t mourn. For there is the sure and certain hope that almost all of those we remember felt before they died. There is no sting, because there is no death. This is why I will never mourn. This refusal to mourn saves the whole world entire and means that there never was any loss and never will be.