Betraying the peace

2018-11-13 15:25
Editor of The Witness Yves Vanderhaeghen.

Editor of The Witness Yves Vanderhaeghen.

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The spring of 1977 is silted in memory with my matric dance and end-of-school delirium.

Beyond the schoolyard, however, there was a fury, to which I’m not sure any of us gave a conscious thought. Our English teacher opened the door to what lay beyond, the only one who strayed in any way from the textbooks. He was a young Rhodesian polymath, who before long was ushered out of the country by B.J. Vorster for subversion, and he went on to become a college chaplain in Eng­land. His mode was Socratic, unusual for the time, when the cane was deemed a good conduit to the brain. But from September to November that year he mainly raged. “Look what they did to him”: I can still see him stabbing the air with a rolled-up Rand Daily Mail, before he read out the report on the death of Steve Biko. After that, new outrages flowed unchecked: the exposés of how he had died, the official denials, how it left Police minister Jimmy Kruger cold, and then the grand deception of the inquest. Every day as we dissected the newspaper we saw how deluded national ideals percolated down through endless levels of hatred and cruelty until their only logical expression could be found in torture, humiliation and murder.

But we had English literature to study for exams, and there, too we found bloodshed and death in the verse of the war poets. The ordinary soldier was a figure of unequivocal reverence at my school. The names of the war dead were carved in limestone and embossed on bronze, and the morbidly disposed spent hours searching for their faces in the old team photos in the hallways. When they found them they would have had no doubt that what they saw were heroes. In these sentimental moments, if a poem came to mind it would have been Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier with its maudlin lines: “If I should die, think only this of me / That there is some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” Never mind that we weren’t English.

The Great War may have been half a century past, but it was always present. Its lost generation stirred undercurrents of unease. It can’t be said that those months were entirely carefree, because most of the class had received their conscription papers and many would be troepies in the new year. Very few felt relish at the thought. Perhaps that’s why, of all the poems we studied, the one that struck a chord was Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est. This was as much due to its description of soldiers “guttering, choking, drowning” in a gas attack as to the sarcastic repurposing of Horace’s unambivalent original: “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”. To read Horace is to read the glee of slaughter. The slaughter of soldiers, yes, but also the innocent, the weak and the fleeing. He conveyed the sentiment that buoyed millions as they stepped forward to be butchered on the orders of pompous warmongers.

To read Owen, on the other hand, is to feel the heartbeat of all those who said “never again”. Writing from the hell of the trenches, it is his compassion for his fellow soldiers which comes through. They were not mere cannon fodder, but individuals trying to get through the day, do the right thing, keep their dignity.

Individuals who, if they made it through, would close up around their pain and warp relationships with friends and family. And if they didn’t, they passed on a legacy of hurt and bitterness anyway, priming successive generations with fuel for zealous nationalists to whose lips the word “revenge” would rise as readily as the sun.

The sting of Owen’s poems is of course that he was killed days before the guns went silent, the news of which reached his mother as the church bells pealed peace on November 11, 1918.

War looks like a good idea only when peace doesn’t feel as good as it should. Warmongers like Donald Trump and Julius Malema feed on this ever-present sense of unease and dissatisfaction among people. Their threats of bloodshed spread like mustard gas as they seek out enemies in the every day, in this or that faction, among immigrants or gays or the ideologically or racially impure. Glib slogans like “We will kill for Zuma” and “Land or Death” hold no promise of better things.

How can Finance Minister Tito Mboweni reach so readily for the imagery of war in a society which needs no excuse to draw blood? What can he be thinking when he says: “Wars start in different ways. Spears and shields, gun powder, bullets and now through media: printed and electronic (eg trade wars by a super president), and then social media!! Well, the SA Editors must be Editors!! If needs be, we will be forced into the fight, War!”

We know that “never again” never held, as another world war followed and even now world war rages across the globe through a range of proxies. Whether the casualties are named Biko, Khashoggi, or whether they are nameless streams of refugees from Syria or Somalia or Central America, their lives are thrown away like loose change by those with hatred to spare.

The best rebuke of them, and the best tribute to the generations who shed their blood in good faith, is to build peace, and not endlessly repeat the anthems of doom.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis

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