Sunday, 25 April 2021

Lest we forget what?

It's gratifying, in a way, to start Anzac Day every year with a commemoration of a shambolic dawn landing that kicked off a pointless and wholly tragic military campaign that snuffed out some of the best young men of two young nations. It's not a victory march, but a sobering commemoration of the destruction of war.

This is healthy. This much is good.

"Lest we Forget!"

It's said every year. And yet year after year, the numbers grow fewer who remember what it was we're not forgetting.

In my own lifetime, the commemoration seems to have morphed from remembering the birth of a nation and the bungling of generals -- and all those who are gone -- to one in which the twin themes of nationalistic duty and blood sacrifice have come to thoroughly permeate the day.

Is it just the proximity to Easter that allows that commemoration's central theme to bleed so strongly into this one, I wonder? Or the co-opting of Anzac Day by so many Australian sporting franchises to sell tickets? Maybe. I fear instead that it's the increasing growth of the gruesome ethics of duty and altruism, and the demands of the State in collecting both.

Yes, war can be the ultimate antidote to tyranny. But what's increasingly praised each Anzac Day is not the price of victory over tyranny, but the alleged virtues of sacrifice itself.

But there is nothing -- nothing -- virtuous about sacrifice.

Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue... “Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious.
“Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the sake of the evil. “Sacrifice” is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don’t... 
A sacrifice is the surrender of a value. Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values. 

The sculpture above and below is by Australian artist Rayner Hoff, inside the Australian War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

It is called, appropriately, ‘Sacrifice.’

At the very focal point of what is virtually a temple to the slain, a stylised man-machine lies prostrate on his shield. Embossed upon it are the words “come home on either with your shield or on it,” the words said by wives whose husbands answered the call to war. His corpse is offered up across a sword too weighty to wield, atop a stylised column lauding the ultimate sacrifice of an individual life. "It tells," says the official description, "not only of the brutality of war and of the suffering it engenders, but of the noblest of all human qualities – self-sacrifice for duty." 


It is a brilliant union of art and architecture. Which makes it all the more horrifying. Few twentieth-century sculptures celebrate the morality of sacrifice in war more nobly. More starkly. More ... appropriately.

For never is the widespread acceptance of the morality of sacrifice exploited so thoroughly but in times of war. In World War One, that mis-named 'Great War,' the exploitation was explicit -- sacrifice exploited for recruitment, for economic savings, to diminish liberty, to justify and transmogrify the mass slaughter into something akin to a mass crusade.
Honour, Duty, Patriotism and -- clad in glittering white -- the great pinnacle of Sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to Heaven. [1]
This disgusting cant was how Lloyd George combined the themes in a 1914 recruiting speech, the "great pinnacle" uniting the reasons to die on the State's chosen altar in history's most pointless war. To no-one's surprise, hymns were written in this vein, ringing to the drumbeat of sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice ...
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save
... the sacrifice of self to others praised as the primary virtue, the hoped-for result of that sacrifice (final victory?) moving quietly into second place.

In the final days of that pointless war, and desperate to give meaning to the slaughter, the literal blood sacrifice of millions was being called up by the religious as constituting some form of great moral atonement akin to that called up by the Easter crucifixion. Said the Evangelical Alliance in 1918:
The men who, in days gone by, have recoiled from the plan statement of God's Word that 'without shedding blood there is no remission of sin' should find this doctrine easy of acceptance in these days when our lives in this Nation, as the lives of those in the Nations allied to us, are being redeemed by the blood of our sons. [3]
What grotesquerie is this: "Redeemed by the blood of our sons"! And this is said as words of praise! Thus are the transgressions of those who seek moral meaning in mass slaughter. Could anything be more foul? "At the centre of this," writes historian Adrian Gregory,
was an interpretation of war as in some sense 'a sign of grace' in the English people. Before the war all the indications were supposedly of some kind of a disaster; a disaster caused by materialism, selfishness and social division. The war had called forth a better nature. An altruistic willingness to sacrifice oneself for the cause of righteousness ... [4]
"We have been too comfortable and too indulgent," cried the goat-footed Lloyd George, "many, perhaps, too selfish." This by a man who conscripted men by the million to die in sheer blind terror. Thus is selfishness made the sin and the morality of altruism made explicit as a call to mass sacrifice -- that collective bloodshed 'atoning' in atavistic fashion for the pre-war "sin" of producing (all-too briefly) a peace-loving world.For having produced and enjoyed, in those years before the 1914-18 war, what was described as “the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history” -- or as Austrian author Stefan Zweig called it “individual freedom at its zenith, after [which, after that war,] I saw liberty at its lowest point in hundreds of years.” [5, 6] That was what mass slaughter had bought. A world war that brought about a Second World War. And, by the ethic of altruism, the soldier's sacrifice became a "'blood tax' against which everyone else had to measure themselves." [7]

We are still being asked to, every April 25.

What is it then we should least forget, every year? For these are among the things that I cannot. As Ayn Rand observed, when there is widespread call of sacrifice, there is always someone ready and willing to pick up the sacrifices. Not in military duty necessarily, today, but undoubtedly in calls for duty, for selflessness, for service to a higher cause -- either State, or Climate, or Great Cause -- that Great Cause to be selected for us by Great Leaders. Selfishness, still, the sin to be expunged. Following along -- in "kindness," in sacrifice, in forelock-tugging obedience -- the virtue to be encouraged.

For under a morality of sacrifice, the standard of value is never your own happiness, but that of others. Not your own prosperity, but that of others. Not even your own life, but those of others. (As W.H Auden sarcastically summarises, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I can’t imagine.” [8])

The result of all this sacrifice amounts to nothing more than an often blood-soaked row of zeroes. And no wonder, for as this excerpt from Galt’s Speech points out: "Under a morality of sacrifice, the first value you sacrifice is morality…" [9]

Think about it.

In the meantime, and as a much healthier antidote, let’s talk about what morality is for: not to teach us how to suffer and die, but to enjoy ourselves and live!

About happiness and its pursuit. Not war. Not sacrifice. But the thing -- and, flowing from freedom, perhaps the only thing -- that is ever worth fighting for. “What else could be more selfishly important?”

Let's not forget what we are here for: to pursue our own happiness in our own productive way, asking neither that others sacrifice for us, nor that we need to sacrifice ourselves to others.

Lest we forget that!


1. David Lloyd George, speech at Queen's Hall, September, 1914, quoted in Adrian Gregory's book The Last Great War,  2008, "an entirely new account of how British society understood and endured the war." (You might also say: of the moral means by which they were exploited.)
2. From the hymn 'O Valiant Heart,' taken from a poem by John Stanhope Arkwright, published in The Supreme Sacrifice, and other Poems in Time of War (1919)
3. The War and Sacrificial Death: A Warning, The Evangelical Alliance, 1918, quoted in Gregory
4. Gregory, 157

5. From Ayn Rand’s introduction to her essay collection The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature.
6. From Stefan Zweig’s 1942 autobiography, which is also a biography of the collapse of Europe into barbarism, The World of Yesterday

7. Gregory, 150
8. Auden, Prose, vol. 2, p. 347
9. Rand, Atlas Shrugged

No comments:

Post a comment

Comments are moderated to encourage honest conversation, and remove persistent trolls.