Sunday, September 07, 2014

posturing with poppies

The First World War began one hundred years ago last month.

You already know that, of course.  We all do.  Oddly enough, it is not true. 

The war began years before in the deadly waltz of power that obsessed the European empires.  And, at its close, four of those empires (the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman) would be dead.  Leaving behind a continent devoid of legitimate government -- and setting the stage for a second act of even-greater horror that made Europe safe for communism.

OK.  I may be a bit sardonic here.  But the First World War is almost universally regarded as one of Europe's greatest blunders.  Even though it was a mistake that seems inevitable to us who analyze it at this distance.  Incomprehensibly inevitable.

Ken, Patti, and I did not set out yesterday to envelop ourselves in that discussion.  All we wanted to do was see St. Paul's cathedral.  They missed seeing its interior on their last visit.

And you are also going to miss out on any interior shots on this visit.  For some reason, cameras of any sort are not allowed.  The stated reason ("allowing photography would greatly detract from the spiritual life of the Cathedral") seems a better argument for banning tourists.  But the compromise is typically British.  Common sense filtered through the gossamer of tradition.

Putting down our cameras gave the three of us an opportunity to really see the church and to talk about its grandeur.  And grand it is.  Within the United Kingdom, it is the second largest church building.

It is also the home for the bodies or memorials of some of Britain's greatest war heroes.  The Duke of Wellington.  Lord Nelson.  "China" Gordon.  And row after row of names of the dead from the First World War.  Plus a memorial to T. E.  Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), though he is buried elsewhere.  (His memorial has a special meaning for me.  And I may write about it one day.)

Having been engulfed by the noble sentiments of "it is sweet and becoming to die for one's country,"* we trudged off to the Tower of London to witness one of the most dramatic displays I have ever seen of lost life in war.

The tower's moat is host to what will be 888,246 ceramic poppies -- each poppy representing a British or colonial soldier who died for the war that would end all wars and make the world safe for democracy.  Reading those lines aloud to oneself requires no patina of irony from me.

The poppies were designed by an artist and the placement is directed by a stage designer.  The last poppy will be installed on Armistice Day this year under the title of "
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red."

The effect is stunning.  The dry moat evokes the frustration and futility of trench war that caused the war to drag on for four years -- when each power thought it could meet the other in a matter of weeks, if not months.

The poppies, of course,  are the traditional way for we the living to show our respect for those who have died for their country.  On the lapel, it is a pretty flower.  When hundreds of thousands are gathered together, they look like a flood of blood.  In a couple of places, the "blood" is allowed to flow over the architectural features of the tower -- a building constructed to create terrors in those who looked upon it.

There is no doubt that the display is theatrical.  And that feature adds a bit of bathos to what it solemnly attempts to portray.  Charles C. W. Cooke recently wrote about the war: "The observation that one death is a 'catastrophe,' one hundred deaths a 'statistic,' is both callous and flippant.  But it carries with it some truth."

I intellectually know that Britain and its empire lost almost 900,000 of some of its finest men during the four years of that war.  An entire generation was almost snuffed out.

But that is a number.  The tower moat shows us just how overwhelming those numbers are. 

My grandfather fought in that war.  He was always very proud of his service -- even though he told us tales of the horrors he witnessed.  Horrors caused because leaders were intent on goals that could never possibly be attained.

It would be nice if we could say it will not happen again.  But the world is filled with some of the same circumstances that defeated the rationality of the Europeans -- lack of legitimate government, an attempt to balance power where there is no balance, attempting to attain goals that are unreachable.

I wonder what moat will be filled with blood one hundred years from now?

* -- The line. of course, comes from Wilfred Owen's anti-war poem, "Dule et Decorum est."  When I read it as a high school sophomore, I dashed off a bit of doggerel in rebuttal.  I am not certain I would do so today.

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