On September the 1st 2014, this years list of service personnel, that have died on duty during the previous twelve months was unveiled at the National Arboretum. This year there will be seventeen new names carved into the Portland stone panels, apparently the least since 1948. If the current world situation and the associated Western belligerent and bellicose rhetoric is indicating anything, it’s the fact that the arboretum stone masons are set to be very busy people indeed.
However, these panels will make no mention of those other victims, those that will remain anonymous, those on the other end of the drone and intensive rocket and bombing attacks, those that simply disappeared and those we call the enemy. The wall will not include the names of those former servicemen who died by their own hand, whose lives had become to painful to bare, in addition the wall will not include the names of those former servicemen who have taken the slow suicide option of self destruction through the use of drugs, drink or freezing to death, homeless, on the streets of our towns and cities.
I have direct experience of this selective process of whose name does and doesn’t go on the wall. In 1975 my brother was serving in the Royal Navy’s Far East fleet on the nuclear submarine repair ship HMS Forth, operating in the South China sea. There was an ‘incident’ with a damaged submarine, he came back to the UK and was sent to the Royal Marsden hospital for a body scan, ten months later he was dead from an osteosarcoma of the spine, a cancer normally associated with exposure to radiation. I wrote to the National Arboretum with the intention of getting his name added to the wall. After some months delay, and letters to and from the school of Naval Medicine, I received a reply stating that my brothers death was not related to his service, but due to a childhood illness. Interesting to note that Lord Mountbatten’s name appears on the memorial even though he was not a serviceman at the time of his death, or that his death was related to service. There are currently fifteen thousand plus names on the memorial wall and space for a further fifteen thousand, which beggars the question “What future wars do the mongers have on their agenda?”
So this wall is a wall of shame, an epitaph to the folly of war and the duplicitous selective filtering of whose names appear and those that don’t, coupled with what Wilfred Owen called the old lie ‘Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’ ( How sweet and right to die for one’s country). But we have been here before, as Siegfried Sassoon so aptly describes his revulsion in the poem “On Passing the New Menin Gate”
On Passing The New Menin Gate
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
A phrase that has always brought up a degree of revulsion in myself, is that ludicrous and asinine statement found on many war memorials “Our Glorious Dead”. My experience from the Falklands War gave me the direct knowledge that there is nothing glorious about being ripped apart by artillery fire or burning to death from phosphorous grenades and then being hastily buried in a water logged hole, only to be dug up some months later and reinterred with all the pomp of a military funeral. There is nothing glorious about consoling a grieving mother who gave birth and nurtured her only son for the first sixteen years of his life, then stands shocked and bemused as his coffin is slowly lowered into the ground. There is nothing glorious about seeing a father frantically running for help cradling his bomb victim injured child, desperate for medical attention as the child’s life ebbs away.
If Britain has been good at anything since the outbreak of World War1 it has been the construction of war cemeteries and the associated memorials. No doubt for anyone who has been to Northern France and the Flanders area of Belgium, they are very serene, beautifully kept, peaceful places, but I am always reminded of Le Ly’s soliloquy in Oliver Stones anti Vietnam war movie Heaven and Earth, as she returns home to the bombed out North Vietnamese village of her birth and walks through the grave yard. “IF WAR BRINGS ANYTHING, IT’S CEMETERIES AND THERE ARE NO ENEMIES IN CEMETERIES”.
Gus Hales is a veteran of the Falklands War and a member of Veterans For Peace UK