Monday, November 13, 2006

The Purpose of History

To be honest i hadn't intended to write about Remembrance Day.

What do you say, what can anyone say? It all seemed a little too difficult, too hard - but then again that's what makes wirting so precious and meaningful, it was never meant to be easy, taking on sensitive subjects that are emotionally charged.

I have read many blogs, and one of the comments made on Awareness' site has stirred me to put fingers to keyboard. I guess in the end we do not choose art, art in fact chooses us, in the end I have to write...I have no choice. I have reflected much those well known lines from Laurence Binyon's poem 'For the Fallen', and this is what that pondering has evoked:

To be honest I have no interest in the easy options regarding the rights and wrongs of war and remembrance. To me it is clear enough that the foundation of western civiization is tied to Christian conceptions of morality, and western politics have been dramatically shaped by Christian thinking. It is equally clear that Christianity is an historical religion - it is founded upon coming to know God, not as an abstract deity in a remote heaven, but rather as a first century Palestinian artisan. but whilst this may be fascinating, it doesn't help our questions, so back to the beginning.

Central to my thinking is a question common to contemporary historiography: 'What is history?', but my question digs further, 'what is history for?'.

All our talk about abstract entities, like history, must be grounded in some type of human experience. just as talk of love is grounded in our experience of travel, so that our relationships can come to a cross-road or a dead end, they can soar or force us to bail out, they can be on track or come off the rails, they can go full steam ahead or founder. So our talk of history is grounded in our experience of personal identity, of being somebody. The language of history then, is the language of national character, of internal pressures and external affairs, of moral battles and political decisions. The end result is that our understanding of history is as important in forming our individual characters as individual characters are in shaping history.

On Remembrance Day in Britain, the National Day of Mourning in Germany, Armistice Day across the Commonwealth, in the United states, ceremonies, where people gather to remember events mostly outside there own experience.

It is now over 90 years since Binyon's poem was penned - almost 9 million soldiers fell - the entire population of Guernsey 150 times over!

These are the facts the bare figures - they are not history, rather its foundation.. History itself is the search for meaning among the facts, for explanation and understanding, for causes, for motivations, tricky situations, clumsy manipulations, brilliant solutions and skillful orchestrations - the effort to discern the difference between fickle fortune and sensible strategy, feckless folly and wise policy. It is an attempt to gain insight into who we are by looking closely at how we ended up where we are now. History puts the present into perspective. What we opt to recall shapes the decisions we take in future.

Only those who forgot the cry "never again' could have supported the invasion of Iraq, for example. As Ayn Rand so pithily put the point, "Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive." Only those who forgot the true cost of war - to the victors as to the vanquished - could choose war before the exhaustion of other options.

I am beginning to believe more and more that there is a greater cost of war than that which is measured in cash, in body counts and privations at home. It is the dehumanizing damage done to the human soul

Our history is a tale of the influence of ignorance and greed, folly and violence pursued by the politically powerful, but played out in the lives of ordinary people - the one's who get hurt. If we do not learn from it, we are condemned to repeat it (something i found sobering as I explained why the sirens were sounding at 11am on the 11th of November). What value is democracy to an indifferent or ignorant public?

Salvation, the goal of all true religion, demands that we remember - WE remember - both the evils that can infest even a noble political system and the good that can spring forth from even the most hardened heart. Salvation demands that we remember - and repent of the evil; for if we united by our common history and our common humanity can hold the powerful to account and demand the good of all over the greed of the minority, only we can promote the pursuit of peace, can insist on common decency and fair policy.

So, in church yesterday, as I bowed in sorrow and reverence before the dead, I swore to myself once again to pit historical truth against fanatical propaganda: a genuine grief against moral indifference. 'Never again' That is what i said to myself - The violent must be held to account - and I pray to God for the strength to arm the next generation with the moral courage and vision to make it so.


Awareness said...



I shouldn't presume...(I will anyways)....but I'm presuming your passion was fueled by the comment that began with using the word shame? If it wasn't that comment...then what I am about to write will be foolish.

I struggled as to whether I would attempt a reply to that specific comment, but decided to remain silent.....a lesson I have relearned from insights and poetry and comments I have read here on your blog. Plus, all I could think of writing as a reply was "piss off" :)

Your commentary.......your thoughtful and stirring words....along with the picture you drew of a person in deep prayer (you) makes me thankful that I kept my fingers off the keyboard.

Art does find us........I am always amazed by that.......makes me believe in a Higher power.

Thank you.........

Niki said...

I wrote so briefly on my page about the service in Guernsey yesterday, which I was honoured to participate in, but you are right. Writing is hard but what interests me is how I can write incisively about mental illness or individual human trauma - it's just when we come to mass atrocities such as war that I'm left floundering.

I promise this comment did start off with a point, but I was intercepted by *tries not to name him* as he decided to make my OCD-ness go mad in the IS room. There I go again - trivial complaints. One day I'll master the art of silence.

Mr. Althouse said...

I guess in the end we do not choose art, art in fact chooses us, in the end I have to write...I have no choice.

How true. And I might add that it cares not whether I feel like it or not. And although I am rarely at a loss for words, becoming motivated to record them can sometimes be a daunting task. It is more than a job, it is a sacred responsibility.

Your paraphrased George Satayana is a sobering reminder indeed -

. If we do not learn from it, we are condemned to repeat it.

Now, if we can only keep from making new mistakes...


The Merry Rose said...

in my family there has always been fairly significance that has gone with remembrance day, as my great grandfather was a soldier in eypgt during the great war.

i personally am a pacafist, but that is a view that many around me do not share. i think this quote from the dali lama encapsulates it further - "If you succeed through violence at the expense of other's rights and welfare, you have not solved the problem, but only created the seeds for another."

plus for me just to add some more significance to remembrance day it is my birthday and my name means remembrance! :) (and no, my parents didn't even think about it at the time.)

Layla said...

I have nothing to add that hasn't already been said so I will just "ditto" Aware and Mike A.

I am glad you have to write.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

Yes you are correct - piss off was polite - bigot is a word i would use, nothing balanced in his argument at all - i think you were right not to respond
Funny how some of our more profound thoughts come when we feel like shit and of no use to anything or anyone...

You were right to feel honoured at being part of remembering - the rememberance service on tv every year was the only time i ever saw my father cry when i was young - every year when the poppies fell he would break down

I agree, it's not so much lacking in what to say, it's more motivation to get started, particularly sbjects we would rather steer clear of
and you are right I did paraphrase Mr Santayana - i thought I had actually put that (in the same way I thought i had mentioned that it was my 3 year old son i was telling about the sirens on the 11th of the 11th - Doh!)
Maybe one day we might keep from making those mistakes...maybe

Merry rose
wonderful quote from a remarkable man who will be remembered in history alongside Ghandi, MLK Jnr, Wilberforce et al - i think the most sobering part of that quote is that more seeds are sown - we breed more of the same

sometimes a sentence like yours is just the encouragement one needs to keep putting fingers to keyboards - thank you

Awareness said...


Some of our best work derives from feeling like shit.

When I am feeling as you describe, it is often a twinge of passion manifested by an incident, a comment, another person etc that offers me a motivational chance to use the "shit" as fodder. :) It's a trigger.......

I often write my best stuff when I'm royally pissed or feeling despondent it because that pain scrapes the soul more easily than other emotions?

The art of writing is such a gift. The knowledge that writing finds you is such a good thing to know.

here's a smile......and a hug....

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

the hug and smile are needed

thank you

Ellen said...

"I pray to God for the strength to arm the next generation with the moral courage and vision...."

....a prayer said by all generations of parents. I remember when the first Gulf War broke out in the very early 90's when my son was still a toddler. As I was giving him a bath that night after the first strike, I could not stop from weeping. My generation grew up on the Vietnam War (and it was war, no matter if it was never declared as such). We were supposed to be the generation that put all wars to rest.... and sadly that never happened.

Any loss of life due to violence of war is deplorable, and we as a race of human beings were supposed to be the smart animals that figured that out.... but we still haven't, and sadly, the cycle continues.

Very well written, and very touching to the soul.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

thanks ellen, a good friend of mine left the marines last year because he was so dissillusioned with the War in Iraq (this was a man who had fought in the 1st war in Iraq and in the craziness of Serbia and Bosnia)

I remember him saying that he wasn't sure what freedom was any more - that still makes me think hard, even today, particularly after watching the Michael Franti documetary 'I Know I'm Not Alone'. If you haven't seen it - i highly recommend - it's an nteresting kind of freedom we have given...

mich said...

Hi Paul, you probably don't know me well, but I chanced across your blog. I'm Michelle Dumont, last year charities co-ordinater at ladies' college... thanks for doing that assembly on fair trade :D.

I've recently joined the quakers and I find their ministry of active peace inspiring. I went to see a film a couple of weeks ago about a peace activist in palestine. I don't think I'll ever forget the image of an unarmed person standing in front of a tank and making it turn round.

To be at war, you have to see the enemy as an object. You can't shoot at a person. What struck me about this activist is that as an outsider she could not be seen as an object, and they couldn't hurt her, whilst they killed hundreds of Palestinians.

I think that to have an enemy we must be in some way alienated from them. Maybe the roots of peace lie in truely 'knowing your enemy'.

Obvious maybe, but we forget the obvious all too often.

Thank you for your insights.

Peace of God.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

Michelle, i do remember you and the assembley very well

you are right the stuff we need to remember, we forget all too easily - as for the Quakers, i have the utmost respect for their peaceful reflective ways - amidst the noise of worship and life we need those who can remain still to hear God whisper...

Trailady said...

War is Hell. Though I do believe that there are times when war is necessary- Biblically, God ordained war on more than one occasion, but I believe it was always as a last resort.

I do not like conflict. I don't believe there is ever a human war with pure motives. Greed for monetary gains and lust for power are usually the driving forces behind aggression. In order to fight & kill, there is a callousing of the soul that must occur in order to perform such duties. I do not wish to bear this, I choose to remain soft-hearted.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

I like the observation of 'callousing the soul'...

i agree, if we hadn't joined to defeat Hitler, what world would we have now...yet what did jesus say?

I wrestle with how different a third of El shaddai that carpenter was...