Monday, 29 April 2013


Why do some combatants volunteer for high-risk operations that will either kill them or let them know they are heroes? It is not a choice between ‘all’ and what we normally mean by ‘nothing’. Here, ‘nothing’ means absolutely nothing, oblivion. If killed, they will still be heroes, but they won’t know that; it won’t matter to them then. But they know now that in risking their lives that they deserve to be called heroes.

In practice, war memorials remind us of the social opportunity cost of war, and they remind us of the enormity of many particular griefs. We do not have similar memorials for others killed in their role, like building workers or fishermen, or even fire fighters or police officers, though the individual opportunity cost and the particular grief are much the same. Why? Possibly because this is not the purpose of war memorials.

Clearly the purpose of war memorials is not about loss as such. What then is the purpose of war memorials? Is it to tell the reluctant combatant in future wars that he will be similarly remembered if he is killed, and so reassure him? It is to tell future generations that something that they enjoy was bought at a tremendous social cost and thus should be thought of as all the more valuable?

War memorials with the names of all the killed from an area are a post-WW1 invention. Sheer scale is important; numbers matter. It is not about a number of individual losses, but about the loss of a large part of a generation.

We only came round to erecting a public memorial showing the names of firemen killed in the Blitz fifty years later. Why did society think of them as different from combatants? Is it important that the military dead died (it is presumed) in a state of readiness to kill the enemy at any moment, and may indeed have actually killed enemy soldiers? That they had crossed, at least in thought and probably in practice, the line between non-killer and killer? Do the memorials ask us to see how many of these killers had themselves been killed? Do we remember when we look at the names that many of those remembered were themselves killers?

What is it like as a soldier to kill your first enemy combatant? Do you then feel your own death in war would somehow make sense and might perhaps even be justified? Does having broken the taboo about killing another person still, as in ‘primitive’ societies, give evidence of a manliness (the sex matters) unobtainable otherwise?

Johnson: "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” … “…The profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness." Fear of what, though? Dying? Killing? Or what?

(Does having given birth give evidence of a womanliness unobtainable otherwise? Man/woman, death/birth, yin/yang)

Note that making an inscription feels as if it keeps something – or someone – in some mysterious sense alive. Memorials such as war memorials or the Marchioness memorial do this; so does carving GT ♥ EH on a tree. ‘Their name liveth for evermore.

In WW2 a very large bomb landed near St Paul’s but did not explode. In order to save the building, bomb squad people disarmed the bomb at great risk to themselves. Was the building worth risking a human life for? Yes. We die to defend culture as well as other people.

‘He died for what he loved and believed in.Inscription on a military grave, Witton Cemetery, Birmingham.

I may put my life at risk because I see the options as being between possible oblivion and living with a self I, now, do not believe I could value enough, the self which would be if I did not put my life at hazard. ‘I could not live with myself’. Literally.

When a person risks his or her life, three possibilities are being faced: conscious survival as a hero (albeit perhaps a crippled hero), conscious survival as a coward (perhaps only in one’s own estimation), and death. But being consciously dead is not a possibility, and the dead hero is not aware of his or her heroism. So the real choice is between living as a hero and living as a coward, and the former may seem more attractive. Do those who risk their lives actually think of the possibilities in this way when they take the risk?

Take seriously the idea of being very badly crippled, rather than killed, through an act of heroism. Which might be preferable? Why? To whom?

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