Friday, June 6, 2014

Two Creations & the Old Lie

Rather by chance, we came across Lully’s Marche Royale on Youtube which was gallantly pleasing as these marches go.   Far more impressive, though, were the accompanying video-stills taken from the Cathedral d’Albi, a late medieval structure in Toulouse, France built between 1287 and 1480. 

We were, it should be said, blown away by its beauty.  But the thought which recurred most in our mind was: hands — the myriad of human arms, hands and fingers that put this beautiful leviathan together.  

With each frame we imagined the backs that carried, the arms that cut, the hands that chiseled, the fingers that set and gilded the host of myriad details, each its own little soul, which joined in harmony to create this reflection of heaven on earth.

We imagined, also, the master masons drafting their plans late into the night, the surveyors measuring ground in the fresh of morning, the drivers and donkeys bearing cartloads of brick and stone to the site, the apprentices laughing and breaking for bread, onions and wine at noon... and of course, the accountants tallying their receipts and balances. 

There was more than mere architectural harmony at work here and the whole edifice made one rather disposed to forgive the human race its manifold follies, vices and crimes.

As fate would have it, however, this morning we came across another video —  a propaganda film made in anticipation of the D-Day landing in Normandy.

The film was mostly a paean to the united logistics that enabled the invasion.  It detailed with swelling pride the jeeps, the tanks, the planes, the rolling stock, the landing craft, the crates of supplies and murderous widgets, all of which were  “the fruition of four years of planning...”

And not least was the vast expense of human labor that so manifestly infused the entire enterprise on every point along the assembly line of war...

“...every man knew just where he was to fit into the gigantic pattern...   intoned the narrator,

“...every jeep every tank... was assigned its place in the grand strategy of attack...”

Every single piece of which -- from belt buckle, to rifle bore, to screwed in detonator, the work of human hands.

Two things such propaganda films rarely show are: drudgery and death — the sheer boring, exhausting, sweating, aching business of unloading 3,000 boxes, of parking 1,000 tanks, of standing in line waiting for something to get done, before some other tedium can slowly unfold; and, of course, the denouement of it all which consist in blowing concrete, earth and flesh to bits in a million moments of destruction, mutilation and death. 

And so, we were left to contemplate what might be called the Two Creations, each the inverse image of the other — one a reflection of what we hope is heaven, the other an embodiment of what we know is hell.

Today, June 6th, the leaders of the Allied Nations, together with sycophants from defeated Germany, gathered in Normandy to commemorate what is styled as the Liberation of Europe, but which would be more honestly be styled as the Great Destruction.

I wish to make very clear that I raise no objection to a penitential remembrance of loss and waste and suffering; and, in this regard, to remember that this remembrance includes the other side, as a 93 year old  English veteran struggled to remind us.

But the truer remembrance, in my view, is the one uttered by Wilfred Owens almost a century ago,

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
When at least, as the Queen has always done, the remembrance is left to silence, no attempt is made to “bawl allegiance to the state” (Owens).  But once the speeching and preaching begins we are simply rehearsing the Old Lie

And this is what was done at the Anglican service on June 5th when the Army Chaplain, sanctimoniously intoned,

“for in the end, greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down lay down his life for his friends...”

The problem with this statement (as we recently discussed) is that it is a sophistical canard which shuffles between the soldier as an individual and as a piece in the “gigantic pattern” of a country at war.

Let us return to d’Albi.  Does it matter that a mason, carpenter or glass-maker may have gotten drunk after work or beat his wife the day before?  Of course not.  His individual sin does not detract from the harmony of the work of the whole as a whole.  The cathedral remains a reflection of man at his best. 

Conversely, the fact that an individual soldier took heart in fear or threw himself down on a grenade to save his buddy does not redeem the vileness of the enterprise of nations. 

This shuffle between the one and the many which extracts from the pain, sorrow and heroism of individuals an insinuation of just cause for the many is the vial of poison used by preachers who whore themselves to war.

And no one whored himself better than Obama, whose  teleprompted remarks on the beaches of Normandy were a paradigmatic example of how the language of crusade is used to justify ongoing war.

After his trademark treacle about “the child who runs his fingers over colourful ribbons he knows signify something of great consequence,”  Obama went on to memorialize the sacrificial heroism of one Wilson Colwell, one Harry Kulkowitz, one Rock Merritt, and then rattled on to commend the present service of one Melvin Cedillo-Martin, one Jannise Rodriguez and one “sergeant First Class Brian Hawthorne” who “just yesterday, [ ] reenlisted in the Army Reserve."    These personal testimonials served as simple, tear-jerking buttresses to the real cathedral of Obama’s argument which was that

These men waged war so that we might know peace. They sacrificed so that we might be free. They fought in hopes of a day when we'd no longer need to.   ... We have to honour those who carry forward that legacy today, recognising that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it. ...May  God bless our veterans and all who served with them, ... And may God bless all who serve today for the peace and security of our world.
In so saying, Obama honey coated the slipped-in assumption that we still need to wage war for peace today.  He was not remembering but advertising.  The solemnification Obama engaged in was a bawling praise of war tricked out in the Old Lie dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. 

The syllogism of the lie is always the same: you are laying down your life pro patria, for your friend, on behalf of others and, therefore, the war of which you were an exploited part was good.  Just as the lie confuses the motives of individuals with those of the State, it seeks to disconnect the act of war from its the inherent nature.

The issue is, in my view, fundamentally simple.  A person who engages in an assault does so for one undeniable purpose: to hit the other person.  The moment one says that the assault is committed for another purpose or for another person or for another concept, one has introduced a disconnect between the act and its ineluctable natural purpose.  Ulterior motive becomes the justification for what is actually done.  But this ulterior purpose bears no necessary relation to the act.  It is simply a tacked-on assertion.  This is the  syllogism of all crusades, the teleology of which Wilfred Owens categorically rejected. 

But once the commemorations at Normandy are seen as the reiteration of a crusade, we are brought to a discomforting intersection of the Two Creations.

The Cathedral d’Albi was built in the wake of the Albigensian conflict during which the government mounted a brutal crusade to suppress the Cathar heresy. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, the cathedral's dominant presence and fortress-like exterior were intended to convey the power and authority of the orthodox Christian faith.

In short, the awesomely beautiful cathedral was built to impress the locals with the magnificence and rightness of the imposed order of things; and, by implication, with the justness of the previous slaughter.

Here a further discomforting intersection arises; for the phrase often attributed to General Patton was first uttered on the eve of the mass slaughter of the Cathars. 

How to distinguish the Catholics from the heretics in the city? it was asked. "Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" – (“Kill them all! The Lord discerns which are his”.)  And so,

"... crying "to arms, to arms!", within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt, as divine vengeance raged marvelously.” (Letter of legate Almaric to Pope Innocent, 1209)

What would Almaric have said of allied carpet bombing? we wonder.   But it is certain that the slaughter of innocents, (which always seems to occur when we heroically and sacrificially die for fellow man) is a horror which requires a commensurate justification which is made as unquestionable as the slaughter it excuses.

The solemnities at Normandy and in Paris are not only a commemoration of the Allied Effort on D-Day, they are, more fundamentally, a solemnification of the post-war world order.  The war is fobbed off as a crusade, the unstated but absolutely necessary premise of which is that we were right and noble whereas the other side was dastardly,  shameless, heretical and consummately evil.  This is a post-war article of faith, which it is illegal and blasphemous to question in any way or to any degree because to do so would begin to question the Old Lie.

©WCG, 2014

No comments: