Friday 26 June 2015

Remember, not repeat

Don McCullin, a lifetime covering war, war, war

Some felt very awkward at the Remembrance Day ceremonies last year, perhaps we should learn from the man who documented the worst or war

It is odd, that a union given to the use of soft power, that there is no unified decision to mark Remembrance Day, when the guns finally stopped and the wholesale slaughter was suspended for a few years.

It is said that the EU doesn’t mark this due to a fear of offending Germany, but this argument doesn’t really apply as few nations have faced their nightmares as well.

But Europe should remember, if only to understand one thing; war is the inevitable consequence of a breakdown in politics and European politics is at its most brittle since the 30s.

Of course, there has always been controversy over the day. Some feel the traditional red poppy is too militaristic, that the day has become a time to praise the dead and to ignore the pain under the comfortable clich├ęs of public life.

Inside the European Parliament a there was an event on Europe’s Cultural Heritage, a meeting that was switched to late morning, meaning that the many who join in the two minutes silence throughout the world were just disregarded by the brave new culture guardians. Apart from demonstrating the parliament’s tin ear, it also was curiously offensive, unless you appreciate true irony.

The public imagination in the UK was caught by a work of art, an installation of ceramic poppies, one for each of the fallen (Brits only) at Windsor Castle. Art can say something deeper and more resonant than today’s politicians, and it did.

The last of the poppies to be planted was done so by a 13 year old boy, a cadet in full military uniform. Perhaps no artist dare make such a provocative finale, in a world where many children are pressed into armies and militia it was disturbing, as a representative of the coming generation, to see him equipped for war was, well like he was being groomed by the spirit of death.

And then, and then, the sight of Tony Blair laying a wreath at the Cenotaph was the ultimate insult to all those who had lost loved ones. Nobody mentioned the dead civilians, the young Iraqis, the Afghan weddings that end in fire and splattered bodies.

It is a testament to the British stiff upper lip that a monster like him, whose fire he lit in the Middle East still burns, can attend a war memorial and not get lynched on the spot.

Better to watch a documentary that is almost too painful to bear, the life of war photographer Don McCullin, incidentally the only human to be banned from going to the Falklands conflict.

McCullin has covered almost every conflict since the 60s and it has marked him deeply and it has made him more human. You’ll know his pictures, the Vietnam Marine with the thousand yard stare, the albino child in Biafra and and many other human made hellholes.

Partway through the film he tells of an incident that is the worst story you’ll ever hear of suffering in war. It’s heartwrenching and so sickening it makes you despair for humanity and how any witness could retain any sanity.

Ten minutes later he tells another story that’s even worse. Even the depths of Hell have a basement. He finishes by just saying with a conviction that burns, “I just felt ashamed for all of humanity.”
He also makes one observation, “It’s always the poorest that get it in the neck in war.”

So, ignore the pomp and circumstance, the stiffly formal official ceremonies and watch Don McCullin and weep.

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