Disasters and Heroes: On War, Memory and Representation by Angus Calder

By Angus Calder

Images of warfare and its commemoration are a daily presence in modern tradition, from the embedded reporter within the box to the final publish on the Menin Gate.  Disasters and Heroes: On battle, reminiscence and Representation revisits campaigns from the plains of Troy to contemporary occasions within the Balkans, reading how wars are represented and remembered.  Angus Calder indicates how the 'facts'of warfare are remodeled into myths that situation later responses to battle, and the way the development of reminiscence starts off with wartime occasions themselves.
Beginning with a piece dedicated to battle memorials and the general public remembrance of conflict, comparable to D-Day commemorations, the essays amassed in Disasters and Heroes then examine the lived adventure of conflict for 'ordinary' humans, whereas the ultimate part offers with literary illustration of conflict, from The Iliad to T.E. Lawrence and directly to Christa Wolf's CassandraDisasters and Heroes is a thought-provoking assortment facing problems with significant value which contemporary occasions have made painfully topical.

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No Christian himself, but a pantheist, with friends involved in theosophy and spiritualism, when he ‘drew’, as Jay Winter observes, ‘on neo-classical forms, he tended to reduce them to simpler and simpler outline or notation’. His masterpiece in this field is judged to be his memorial to the missing of the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval. The names of 73,000 men whose bodies were never found are engraved on its inner walls. Lutyens’s concept, extremely austere, is geometrical. Four triumphal arches ‘describe the base of the memorial; their height is two-and-a-half times their width and they are superseded by a series of larger arches placed at right angles to the base’.

It was, in some vague way, a ‘revolutionary’ war. Look at the speeches and articles of Quintin Hogg MP, now Lord Hailsham. He led the Tory Reform Group of young politicians who, unlike many in their party, were hotly in favour of implementing the Beveridge report of 1942, with its plan for social security for all from cradle to grave and its still more attractive ‘assumption’ that there would be a National Health Service. Hogg told the Commons in February 1943 that he heartily approved of the ‘redistribution of wealth’ implied by Beveridge.

Thought about what is going on in these sequences brings us up against limitations, and even inanity, in the twentieth-century memorial tradition. Remembrance Sunday in Britain proceeds on the unexamined assumption that our dead of the two world wars, and by extension of Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, the Falklands, Bosnia – were brave young men deprived of long and happy lives by their ‘sacrifice’ for their fellow countrymen. Each might be said, in more pious days, to have imitated Christ’s sacrifice, but now that society takes Christ less seriously some vague notion of the decorousness of laying down one’s life for one’s country, pro patria mori, is what we are left with.

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