After the death of Harry Patch – Britain’s last living World War I veteran – on Friday, Gordon Brown lost no time in coming forward to suggest that the country should hold a memorial service to honour the ‘sacrifices’ that Harry Patch and his generation had made to safeguard Britain’s freedoms. It would seem churlish, if not downright disrespectful, to object to this proposal. But are we sure that this is something that Harry Patch himself would have wanted? In my own mind, I’m convinced he would not have wanted to be ‘remembered’ in this way. Here’s why.
To keep the record straight, I have nothing but the greatest admiration for Harry Patch and all those who suffered and died amid the horrors of trench warfare in the war to end all wars. Similarly, the stories of those young men and women who were so brave in fighting Hitler in the Second World War – and, indeed, the struggles of the whole British population at that time – often reduce me to tears. Therefore, I do think it is right and proper to remember what Harry Patch’s generation went through in our name, to give thanks and pray for them.
The problem is, were their sufferings a ‘sacrifice’ as such and, if so, for whose sake and to what end? Calling soldiers’ deaths in war a ‘sacrifice’ is a way of justifying the fighting by saying that the deaths in question are ‘worth it’: a willing gift of their own lives for the sake of the higher purpose the war is said to be serving. But were the deaths of all those millions of WW1 conscripts on all sides – British, French, German, etc. – really worth it? What purpose was ultimately served by them? And was the aim of repulsing the German invasion of Belgium and France really a sufficiently just cause to throw so many fine young men to the slaughter?
Harry Patch categorically thought it was not. In one of the TV interviews they showed at the weekend, Patch was asked whether he thought the deaths of his comrades were worth it, and he said they were not. Nor did he think the loss of young British men in today’s wars was worth it. He called war ‘organised murder’ and said that it had proved impossible for him to convey the full horrors of his wartime experiences to people today, who were just not capable of understanding. And he refused to attend the Act of Remembrance celebration, which he termed “just show business”.
Well, it seems that just such an act of remembrance is now going to be organised supposedly to honour the ‘sacrifice’ made by Patch and his generation, with Patch even being held up by some as an “exemplar of a generation that sacrificed itself for the sake of the freedoms we enjoy today” [see above link]. That is precisely what Harry Patch is not and what he would have hated to see himself characterised as. For him, it was not a sacrifice but a meaningless, terrible slaughter. That is how Harry Patch remembered it. But it seems that, as soon as his authentic memory of World War I has been extinguished, we are intent on ‘remembering’ it as something it was not. We have already forgotten. Perhaps we feel it would have been indecent to ‘celebrate’ what the ‘lost generation’ went through while some of its representatives were still alive and could have stood up to accuse us of falsifying the past.
And it’s not only the past that we traduce in this way but also the present. Our celebration of the sacrifice of past generations is also a means to remember and affirm the ‘sacrifices’ being made by British forces today in Afghanistan. No doubt, in the memorial service for the WW1 generation, fine words will also be uttered about today’s wars and the willingness of a new generation of brave young men to lay down their lives for our freedoms. The lustre of the lost generation, now that the sordid reality is past, will be used to once again justify our fighting in foreign fields and to proclaim that the accelerating pace of lost British lives in Afghanistan is ‘worth it’.
But is it? Harry Patch didn’t think so. Is the avowed purpose of the British presence in Afghanistan – to prevent Al Qaeda from being able to mount terrorist attacks against the UK and her allies – really best served by allowing the military conflict there to continue escalating with no obvious end in sight and with growing loss of life (military and civilian) on all sides? And when the conflict does come to an end, under whatever circumstances, will we feel that Afghanistan has been another of ‘our finest hours’; or will we rather just wonder why we ever went there?
Harry Patch’s experience was that of the sheer futility and mindlessness of war, and of the needless destruction of human life it brings. Ultimately, for him, nothing could make this ‘worth it’. Not even the loss of a single life was worth it, he also said. While we may not all follow such insights to their logical conclusion of total pacifism, they do at least stand as a testimony to the truth that war is so terrible, and yet so avoidable, that we should seek to avoid it at all costs and search for any alternative that we possibly can.
The fact that World War I was not ultimately the war to end all wars is the proof that we have not learnt this lesson.
Rest in peace, Harry Patch. We will remember you.