13 November 2011

On the ceremonial of remembrance

(Nothing below is intended to disparage remembrance and respect for the fallen and maimed in any military conflict, including honorable foes.)

I've just been watching this ceremony of remembrance as I always do. (The link will expire a week from posting, and may not work outside the UK). I had my reservations about the show-biz contributions, and I wonder about the (post-Diana?) shift to sentimentality rather than stoicism, but sensibilities and fashion change, even at this level.

It's the context and the communal dimension which confers the genuinely moving nature of this ceremony.

In 2006 I attended the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. (the video is not mine--it's from YouTube).

I was very disappointed. For all the precision and spit-and-polish and solemnity, it struck me as camp. More mincing than marching.

Then this year I witnessed the parallel ceremony in front of the Presidential Palace in Athens.

Our guide included it, I think, because her son had been a member of the honour guard when he did his obligatory military service. She was clearly very proud. But I'm afraid it reminded me too much of Monty Python...

I'm not saying this to mock. I just found myself speculating about how these peacocks' tails of rituals came about. Perhaps the ultimate example is the pantomime at the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir:

In each case (apart from the Ministry, of course), there seems to be something important and solemn to be commemorated, which confers prestige on those who perform the ritual, and apparently permits its evolution through generations of young men without checks and balances. And of course the significance of the ritual lies simply in the fact that it takes place. While the performance in Kashmir does refer to the rhetoric of contempt, as Michael Palin comments, there is no meaningful symbolism in the presenting of arms or the goose-stepping of the other ceremonies.

Cut loose from meaning, there is merely performance. On the one hand, those who perished deserve better than that. On the other, they too were young men like these--perhaps it is what they would have done--before they did the other things young soldiers do given the chance...

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