In a forest in Northern France lies the little town of Compiègne. There you will find an exact replica of the historic railway carriage where Foch and Erzberger signed the agreement which ended the terrible bloodshed and carnage of World War I.
It is a replica because the Germans took the original back to Germany when they invaded France yet again in World War II. As the advancing American troops convened on the town where the German army had hidden it, the Germans set fire to it and destroyed it irretrievably. War has always been about symbolic acts – the flag erected, the shrine destroyed, the hurt inflicted.
Today we – or some of us – will stop for a moment or two at 11am and reflect on the deaths of the healthy young men and women who fight for our ‘honour’. We might even stoop our heads for a brief second. Unless we are personally affected by the current death toll of 342 we will not otherwise be disturbed en route to buy the latest DVD from Virgin stores or whatever we were doing.
The death toll is updated in respectful tones on the evening news, the names read out in parliament with as much haste as they think they can get away with before the important business of the day – Prime Minister’s Question Time, the hurly-burly charade that passes for democracy and accountability in the UK – the very things we are allegedly fighting for in Afghanistan.
We barely mention the lives destroyed, the misery not circumvented by a merciful death, endured by those injured whilst fighting to ‘protect our country’. Occasionally we see the ‘successes’ of Selly Oak Hospital – the men trained to walk on metal legs, the prowess of the basketball player who manages with one arm and no legs, the marriage of the man who was never thought able to walk down the isle, but we do not dwell on the unremitting horror of the lives of those disabled by ‘protecting us’.
Indeed, we have only started publishing figures in the past few years. 3,919 men and women who required Aeromed evacuation from the front line back to the UK. That doesn’t take account of those whose screaming nightmares and desire to blot out their memories with drugs or alcohol have left them unemployable. The nearly 4,000 on those Aeromed flights were just those with an arm blown off, or the fingers of their right hand missing who were not judged fit to return to a ‘normal life’ in the UK on a regular flight……..
We could do worse than to give them a thought today, alongside their fallen comrades.
Particularly those of us who were so exercised last week by the remarks of Herman Van Rompuy on the death of the ‘homogeneous nation-state’. I am not a fan of the EU, it is corrupt, incompetent, inefficient, unwieldy, bloated, and falls far short of the transparency and accountability that we deserve in a democracy.
That doesn’t mean that I support those who would send young men and women to their deaths, and to endure malevolent lingering ‘lives’, to defend a line drawn in the blood soaked earth by long dead generals. The nation-state is an artificial construct, drawn up by negotiated expediency in the wake of exhausted armies. We tend to think in the UK that because we are an island that this truism doesn’t apply to us – we forget Northern Ireland, happily included in the ‘British Isles’ by such expediency. Actually further away from us than France…and the Falkland Isles, and Gibraltar.
The armchair ranters who say they ‘will die’ defending ‘their’ island nation are already part of the mini-globalisation that created the British Isles, and it is not they who will be required to stand in the face of a man who wishes them dead over a line in the sand; it is not they who will return home to recreate a life on metal legs; to find pride in winning a game of basketball sitting on your backside.
War is obscene. To wage it over an artificial boundary more so.
Here in France, Armistice Day will be observed in silence. The shops are closed, the roads empty. (The boulangerie will open this morning, it even opens on Christmas Day; fresh bread daily for every citizen is embedded in the French psyche since the revolution!) At 11am every village memorial will be surrounded by a solemn and silent group of aged men and women.
They are part of the same generation of elderly men and women in the UK who are jostled aside as people rush for the morning train, mugged for their pensions as they totter down the street, left to lie in their own urine in care homes across the country.
43 years ago today, I gave birth to a son in St Georges Hospital on Hyde Park corner. At precisely one minute to eleven. One minute later a 41 gun salute just outside the window of that delivery room roared it’s welcome to the young man. Coincidentally, it is the exact same 41 gun salute that is fired to welcome a Royal birth – it certainly impressed the midwives.
Today the guns will lie silent in Hyde Park. In recent years the King’s Royal Troop only honour Prince Charles’ birthday in February in this way.
They did, last year, fire just one gun before and one after the two minute silence on the official Armistice Day, rather than at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
They won’t even be doing that this year. I shall have to settle for hearing the roar of those cannons on a Youtube excerpt.