Wilfred Owen's poem 'Dulce et Decorum est' entered my consciousness around the time I began to learn Latin. The soldier-poet's horrifying description of the terror of men experiencing a gas attack and details of the suffering endured by those who did not get their masks on in time, forms a powerful disjunction with the quotation from Horace – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and fitting to die for your country.
My child's mind had begun to perceive Latin as the language of tradition and dignity and my willingness to receive its music as something of great portent received a jolt from this poem. I began to wonder then at the language we use for memorialising and have continued to do so for over 40 years.
At this time of the year, there is no escaping the difficulty. Last week I stood in front of a war memorial in a small market town and looked at the inscription 'Our glorious dead' followed by the admonition 'see to it that they are not forgotten'.
The old shock from that long ago English Literature lesson returned. Why are these young men whose lives were taken so brutally, 'glorious'? And what are we to make of the slightly bossy warning which followed? What must we do to grasp the meaning, to remember their suffering and grasp the human dignity lying so far beyond the ritual words of remembrance?
A group of veterans who fought in Northern Ireland and the Falklands wrote to the Guardian newspaper last week to challenge the accepted language of remembrance and its outcomes.
Challenging the “showbiz hype” of the campaign to “wear a poppy in support of 'our heroes'” they point out that there is nothing heroic about being blown up or shot in an unnecessary war. It is only the fact that the writers are men who have lived this reality which prevents widespread howls of rage from the armchair green-berets.
For most of my life, remembrance has been focused on the two world wars of the 20th century. Now, with the conflict in Afghanistan sending young men home maimed or in coffins, we are dealing with something contemporary, something which spreads its tentacles of grief and loss into our own towns and workplaces.
We have to learn to speak truth to unimaginable suffering without ever forgetting the truncated lives of so many young soldiers and the lifelong pain of their families. We have to find the words, now, today.
We are paralysed before the anguish of parents whose life sentence it is to imagine their son screaming in fear and pain during the last minutes of his life. We are left dumb in the presence of a young mother whose baby will never know its father. So, casting around for something – anything - that may offer comfort, we plug into the rhetorical devices of remembrance.
But look again at Owen. The terrified men, the bleak facts of mortal wounds - “if you could hear at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”, the hopelessness of young men whose lives are all but over - “his hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin”.
How are we to bear what he puts before us? Only by facing the truth. Only by accepting that this is not glorious, that it is the vile outcome of failure by politicians, rulers, generals – by all of us who acquiesce in the delusion of glory and heroism, who are ready to confuse care for “our boys” with anything other than peacemaking.
Only then might we begin to remember with integrity and accept that there is no inherent virtue in ceremony and no lasting consolation in high-flown periods or patriotic clichés.
Wilfred Owen had the right to rail against ”the old lie” He survived all the horrors of trench warfare only to be killed by a sniper on the day peace was declared.
I was not there and so you may sneer at what I have to say. But I am the daughter and granddaughter of men who were, in their different ways, broken by war. They were determined that we, the young ones, should not “ be ardent for some desperate glory”. We must not let them down.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger