[Art installation “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” in the Tower of London marking the anniversary of World War One]
Commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War was, of course, necessary. Four years of conflict, the like of which had never been seen before, resulted in 37 million dead. It wasn’t, unfortunately, The War to End All Wars and it goes without saying that as we mourn those who died for their king and country, entire regions continue to be ravaged by conflict.
It’s a shame, then, that the commemoration of the War, in the UK at least, has been so profoundly misjudged. Every year Remembrance Day celebrations are sombre and dignified; the subtle wearing of a poppy and a series of reflective sermons up and down the country. In contrast, the centenary has been characterised by an avalanche of pro-war propaganda. From poorly-made documentaries to tacky ‘commemorative books’, these have, in the main, simply presented years of suffering and death as an endless stream of ever-more ghoulish tales, constantly vying to trump each other in a bid to enthral us.
But how can they possibly hope to succeed? We have surely never, as a society, been so desensitised to violence as we are now. We live in the era of chemical and biological weapons; perhaps grenades and trenches simply can’t compete. The question, then, is should they have to? Should WWI have to be top dog? Is it not enough that it ripped nations apart and that its consequences, 100 years on, are plain? Isn’t there a more honourable way to commemorate the sacrifice?
Recently, I discovered there was. Unbeknownst to the general public, 49 individual lights were switched on at Parliament, designed in such a way that they converged into one glorious beam of blue light 10 miles high and visible across the city. When I saw it, it was busy, but there was an atmosphere of reverence. This wasn’t a grand monument with pictures of millions of war dead, but it was a monument. Like all good monuments, in amongst the crowd there was space to sit and to gaze and to think. It is easy to read a list of ‘war facts’ but it is often difficult to be moved by them.
The Spectra installation was deeply moving, and probably more so for its simplicity. It was, in many ways, an atmosphere that felt mystical and which allowed those present to consider themselves and their place in the world. Maybe it also provided the time and space necessary to reflect on the wars which continue to blight so many lives. That space has sadly been lacking from much of the commemorative rhetoric.
Regardless of the ‘cause’ at stake, war should teach us something. It should teach us that life is fragile and transient; that humans are capable of terrible acts of violence but also of astonishing acts of kindness. It should remind us too that love and compassion are forces for good, but that they are all-too-easily destroyed. Sometimes an abstract installation can do that which words cannot.