One of the things I love about Helen’s weekly prompt to share a song is the glimpse it gives me into the lives of people in different countries. This week’s theme – a song about the armed forces – is inspired by the fact that it’s Memorial Day in the United States. I’d never heard of this before, but thanks to Helen and Wikipedia I now know that it’s a federal holiday at the end of May to honour those who died while serving in the armed forces.
With a bit more googling, I’ve found that Memorial Day is subtly different to Veterans Day, which is held on November 11th to honour military veterans. In the UK, we don’t have Memorial Day, but November 11th (or the Sunday closest to it) is called Remembrance Sunday. This day acknowledges veterans and casualties – both the military and civilian. I think it’s an interesting cultural difference between our two countries that America has two separate days to honour military veterans and military casualties, but in the UK we honour both – plus the civilian dead – on the same day. I guess this is because, as a percentage of the population the American military is twice as big as the UK’s, so probably has a higher public profile.
I’ve become a little ambivalent about Remembrance Day in the UK in recent years. To my mind, it should be a day for making a commitment to work together for peace as a tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. But these days it seems to be more about glorifying war and promoting a kind of anti-foreigner patriotism – which seems a good way to guarantee that there’ll be more war, and more dead soldiers to remember in future.
I couldn’t think of any song which captured these complicated feelings. In fact, for a good hour I couldn’t think of anything apart from ‘Camouflage‘ by Stan Ridgway (and no, I’m not sharing that). So I’ve decided to bend the rules and share a poem: Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen. While there’s a lot of brilliantly angry First World War poetry out there, this one simply captures the sheer sadness of the loss of life, which we can all relate to, whatever our political persuasion.
I’ve always had a thing for Wilfred Owen. In fact I was once a pretentious English Literature student who carried around his biography and graffiti-ed desks in the college library with his poems. My best friend at the time will testify that in 1990 I dragged her round Birkenhead in the rain to stare mournfully at the various terraced houses he’d lived in as a child (she took me to Newton-Le-Willows to look for Rick Astley’s house, so it was a friendship of give and take). He’s very much at the forefront of my mind right now, as I’ve been invited to write an article about a forthcoming film about the final year of his life… more of that another time though. Here’s Anthem for Doomed Youth:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning, save the choirs –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells,
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.