Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, November 11, 2013

War and Living Memory

"Remembrance Day at the John McCrae House (birthplace, museum, & memorial) in Guelph, Ontario Canada. A detail shot of the 'altar' of the memorial, with the complete poem 'In Flander's Fields' and the line 'LEST WE FORGET' inscribed on it. 2 Canadian remembrance day poppy pins and part of a wreath are visible." (11 November 2009). Image Source: Wiki.

Today is Remembrance Day, also known as Armistice Day, which observes the end of hostilities of World War I. It also commemorates the end of World War II and the fallen in other wars such as Korea and Vietnam and post-Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The two world wars are passing from living memory. Wiki has a list of the last surviving World War I veterans in the world. Almost all of them have died since 2000, save for three remaining veterans in Bulgaria, China and Greece. They include: Bright Williams of New Zealand, died 2003, aged 105 years; August Bischof of the former Austrian Empire, 2006, aged 105 years; Erich Kästner of the former German Empire, 2008, aged 107 years; Pierre Picault of France, 2008, aged 109 years; Delfino Borroni of Italy, 2008, aged 110; Yakup Satar of the former Ottoman Empire, 2008, aged 110 years; Mikhail Krichevsky of the former Russian Empire, 2008, aged 111 years; John Campbell Ross of Australia, 2009, aged 109 years; John Babcock in Canada, 2010, aged 109 years; Frank Buckles in the United States, 2011, aged 110 years; Florence Green in the UK, 2012, aged 110 years.

As these Great War contemporaries pass away, members of the so-called Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation remain the last people alive who can recall World War II. The Baby Boomers, by definition, have no living memory of the Second World War. And perhaps the distinction between those earlier generations and the latter shows how the world wars left an indelible mark on attitude and consciousness. The Boomers point to other conflicts in Korea and Vietnam as having shaped their awareness. 

The memorial structure spanning Lyon Street, Ottawa, Canada (click image to enlarge). Image Source: The Man Who Lived Airplanes.

But there was a difference between the world wars and Cold War conflicts - mainly in terms of intensity and extent. The world wars engulfed whole societies and transformed them, and civilians were part of - not distant observers of - conflict. The reason for keeping the memory of the world wars alive is to recall the duty and sacrifice of those who suffered and died - and of those who survived. In downtown Ottawa at the corner of Wellington and Lyon Streets, there is a structure spanning Lyon Street. It features a phalanx relief, designed by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. It commemorates the fallen of World War II and bears an inscription from Ecclesiasticus 44:7: ALL THESE WERE HONOURED IN THEIR GENERATIONS AND WERE THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES. The sentiment is typical of other war memorial markers which dot the post-mid-20th-century landscape in universities, parks, cemeteries, and town squares.

By contrast, during the Cold War, honour, duty and sacrifice were popularly challenged as cardinal wartime ideas. By the 1960s, a new narrative about peace-making had commonly (and politically) replaced the values of conflict. The irony of the later pacifist dialogue is that it fails to recognize that the very observance of earlier post-war attitudes helped preserve the peace, or at least prevent total wars from recurring. Certainly, the reasoned challenge to the rightness of, or need for, bloody sacrifice made sense. Who could do anything but deplore the horrific loss of life and the hellish nightmare of the 20th century? Nevertheless, the hard, living memory that blood had been spilt, and that that really meant something, prevented blood from being spilt again. In War and Peace (1869), which details the French invasion of Russia in the early 19th century, the Old Prince argues that pacifism cannot be reconciled with human nature (a quote I have mentioned before):
Pierre was maintaining that a time would come when there would be no more wars. The old prince disputed it chaffingly, but without getting angry.

"Drain the blood from men's veins and put in water instead, then there will be no more war! Old women's nonsense—old women's nonsense!" he repeated, but still he patted Pierre affectionately on the shoulder, and then went up to the table ... .
While pacifism is undeniably desirable and laudable, and sacrifice is abhorrent, to dismiss the value of sacrifice as a meaningless waste is to lay the lamentable groundwork for further widespread conflict. In other words, nothing is more dangerous than to say confidently: "War means nothing; they died for nothing; how could they be so stupid?" It is not that the overlying jingoism of war demands any respect. The point is that underlying eternal human impulses toward conflict must be treated gingerly, recognized with awareness and care - and never with a confident dismissal.
This is why, as the world wars pass from living memory, we lose the witnesses who could explain total war from their experiences. If we forget how war appeals to something awful in human nature and how that played out in daily life, we risk the loss of peace while campaigning for it so relentlessly. As the world wars fall to historians, we must try even harder to understand war and why it exists, and to keep an serious eye on the range of values it promotes, not always to celebrate them, but in order to keep that wolf from the door. This is why the epitaphs speak of remembering and respecting sacrifice, even when some cannot rationally agree with it or cannot imagine the much worse alternatives: "If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow, In Flanders fields."

German World War II air raid siren in Austria (2010). Video Source: Youtube.

Caption for the above video: "Now it is time to present you a further interesting close up siren video of an old German 'Elektror-siren' from WW2-times still in function. Location is in Austria. (here you can see/hear only the low-tone unit with big 3 ports!). And so it has a very deep siren-sound and this is a curious and scary thing when it runs. Sirentone-frequency is at 145 Hz! The test-signal is called 'alarm' (available in Austria) and it has the purpose to warn the population in case of dangers like e.g. chemical accidents. Of course this old siren is still in function to call the firefighters in case of fire."

German WWII air raid siren (2011). Video Source: Youtube.

Hear a Canadian air raid siren from a Youtuber near Nanticoke, Ontario: "Walpole Antique Farm Machinery Assoc. (WAFMA) Members test an old air raid siren at the club. It was used in World War 2. And later was used as a fire siren. This is the first time in 30 years it went off in town and this was the 3rd time setting it off that day. Plus I had the dog with me so I didn't get close to it." (April 2010): embedding disabled - see the video on Youtube.

For all my posts on 60s Legacies, go here.


  1. The danger in forgetting the fallen is never more evident than in the tendency for hawkish politicians to be among those with the least battlefield experience, and vice versa. When I was in middle school and just starting to follow politics there was a fairly right-wing state legislator who consistently voted against any expenditure to supplement the then-paltry federal efforts to help Viet Nam veterans to reintegrate with society. Officially, Agent Orange and other military practices that proved more harmful to our own troops than their enemies didn't exist and the very real and self-evident damage they did, to body and mind, went unaddressed as a matter of policy. This legislator commonly characterized injured veterans as cry-babies and would launch into windy speeches of his own purported exploits during the war, for which he required no help in dealing. During one of these a colleague experienced a creeping feeling of deja vü. He suddenly realized where he had heard the story before. Earlier that week, he spent a rare night off vegetating in front of the TV. One of the shows he watched was "Hogan's Heroes", then in syndication. The plot was identical to the story being told on the floor. For the next few weeks he made a point of getting home early enough to catch the show and it eventually paid off. The next time someone proposed an appropriation to benefit veterans, the perennial naysayer launched into another "personal experience of war" only to be cut off by the colleague, who finished the story for him-- because he had seen that episode. He then related exactly HOW he knew the end of the story, and what the Veterans Administration had to say about the story-teller's actual military record, which, astonishingly, no one else had ever bothered to double check. For the first time in his life, the pol who denied the existence of PTSD was feeling a little shell-shock of his own.

  2. Oh, and thank you for reminding me about "In Flanders Field" (not possessive). The entire poem was illustrated by P. Craig Russell, the artist who drew my Sandman icon. It was first published in "9-11 Volume One: Artists Respond" (Dark Horse, 2002). It appears here colored by Lovern Kindzierski.



    1. Wow, a 9/11 version of 'In Flanders Fields' - how Millennial! Thank you, pblfsda, as always. As for politicians and war policy, the larger point I intended was that war is assumed to be a matter of policy-making. This is in some ways comforting - because we can then blame politicians or leaders. But a long view of history suggests that war comes up again and again, regardless of intention, policy, religion, society, culture, government. It is a very disturbing and essential part of human experience. Thus, contrary to what ideologues argue, it is not 'optional.' It may overtly be the result of bad politics. But more likely, it cannot be explained away, wished away or blamed away on others. Understanding that war over the long term is inevitable means that any complacency in pacifism (presuming that we have a choice in the matter and we simply have to choose peace to avoid war) must go to one side. It would be far better to cultivate a guarded and conscious understanding of giant conflicts, how they transpire, and how to avoid them. One way to do that is to speak to people who have a living memory of war, and ask them how general warfare appeared to combatants and non-combatants in day-to-day life.

      Shortly before his death, Robert McNamara - a man who had political reason to sidestep judgement - insisted in a documentary, 'The Fog of War,' that at the end of the day, his politics were irrelevant. He argued that we do not understand how war works, and that we must try harder to do so. Some analysts have claimed that war relates to the evolution of society and technology.

      At this point, I would be far less interested in hawkish windbag politicians and more concerned about secret weapons programs and what kind of tech is being used in arms buildups for anticipated future conflicts.

  3. Further on this: see the Discovery article, 'Is War Inevitable?'