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Michael Winship

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In a Chilly London November, War and Remembrance

Posted: 11/17/2009 7:36 am

In Great Britain, Remembrance Sunday falls on the second Sunday of November, the one closest to November 11th, the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. Once, the world called November 11th Armistice Day. Now, here in the States at least, it is Veteran's Day.

As coincidence and travel itineraries would have it, twice over the last four years I've been in London on Remembrance Sunday. This time, my girlfriend Pat and I were on our way home from Greece, stopping off for a couple of days to see old friends.

As we unpacked at the hotel, a recap of the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies was playing on TV -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife laying a wreath at the Cenotaph (the UK equivalent of our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), a stirring parade of veterans along Whitehall, the military bands playing "Rule, Britannia," "God Save the Queen" and "O Valiant Hearts."

Remembrance Sunday fell just a couple of days after the horrendous shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 soldiers dead and 30 wounded, many of whom were preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. From Greece, we had been watching the news reports on CNN with special interest. I'd been at Fort Hood several times -- the huge military base is where my parents met during World War II; my father a medical supply officer, my mother a secretary from a nearby town. It was Camp Hood then.

Remembrance Sunday also fell less than a week after an Afghan policeman named Gulbadin, armed with a machine gun, shot five British soldiers dead at a police compound in Helmand province. The men had just returned from patrol and had put their rifles aside, preparing for a rest. The policeman opened fire from a rooftop.

The wantonness of the killings only further deteriorated the already plummeting British support for the country's involvement in the Afghan war, and anger worsened in the next few days after Prime Minister Brown accidentally botched a handwritten letter of condolence to the mother of Jamie Janes, a British soldier killed last month by an IED. He, too, was in Helmand province.

It seems Brown misspelled Janes' name in the letter. The mother, urged on, some say, by Rupert Murdoch's tabloid, The Sun (which recently switched its political allegiance from Brown's Labor Party to the Conservatives), bitterly attacked the prime minister for insensitivity. In a subsequent phone call with Brown, which she recorded -- perhaps with the assistance of The Sun -- she chastised him for failing to adequately equip and protect British troops in Afghanistan. After several days of media-manufactured controversy, she accepted his apology.

Brown blamed the incident on his notoriously poor penmanship and inability to see -- he is blind in one eye.

Metaphor, remembrance and coincidence were in abundance during our brief London stay. As it happened, the next night, we went to see a play called The War Horse. Written by Nick Stafford, and based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, the drama uses remarkable, life-size puppets of horses, beautifully crafted and each masterfully manipulated by teams of performers so skilled you sometimes forget that what you're seeing isn't real.

The War Horse is the story of Joey, a horse that's half-thoroughbred and should be raised for riding in foxhunts by the landed gentry. But through fate and the cruel reality of rural life in southwest England's Devonshire, Joey is brought up as a farm horse, trained and loved by a teenager named Albert. When World War I begins, Albert's father sells the horse to the British cavalry. Albert runs away and joins the army to find him.

In the beginning, almost everyone is convinced that the war will be brief -- "God help the Kaiser, because... we're gonna run him right out of Belgium, right back into Germany." But as a veteran British major tells a junior officer, "Every generation has to discover things for themselves, don't they? There's some things that can be understood through telling, but other things have to be experienced before they can be fully apprehended. War is one such thing."

Joey is ridden into senseless, deadly charges against German machine guns. Eventually, he and another horse end up on the other side of the enemy lines, and are forced to drag German hospital wagons and artillery as both armies fall into the trench warfare of mud and misery that will go on for more than four bloody years, killing between 15 and 16 million.

Our current reality, our deadly dilemma in Afghanistan as Barack Obama reportedly agonizes over the next steps there, were never far from mind, even as we lost ourselves in the story and stagecraft of the play. At one point, a young British recruit is given his grandfather's knife to carry, a souvenir of the Second Afghan War, he's told. At another, a German sergeant named Rudi talks with a group of fellow soldiers: "They're saying that because we attacked, we're paying for it. They're saying that we must get rid of the Kaiser and make a democracy. It would be impossible for a democracy to start a war, continue a war against the will of its people. What do you think?"

In the penultimate scene, an injured Joey has been pulled from the barbed wire of no-man's-land by a British soldier and is about to be out of his misery by a doctor's bullet when Albert, temporarily made sightless by gas, hears him and they are reunited.

A happy ending of sorts, but what I was reminded of was another powerful metaphor, a painting by American artist John Singer Sargent that I saw a few years ago in London's Imperial War Museum.

During World War I, Sargent, master of the exquisite, artful society portrait, was commissioned by the British government to go the front and create a work that would celebrate the cooperative spirit of British and American soldiers pulling together in "The War to End All Wars."

Finding little to none of that alleged battlefield camaraderie, instead, he painted a massive canvas -- twenty feet wide and more than seven feet high -- depicting a group of soldiers felled by a mustard gas attack. In hues of yellow and brown, they stumble in a setting sun toward the hospital tents, eyes bandaged, each man in the line struggling to find his way, guided by a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him.

The blind leading the blind.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.


 

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