My ‘Letter to An Unknown Soldier’
I was not alive in your time, so I can only view the world from my modern perspective. I can only hope there is some grain of truth in what seems to me be a simplistic picture of the Tommy type soldier of the First World War. We are told you had clarity about what you were fighting for and that the notion of King and Country sustained you on dark cold nights living in a world of mud. We don’t necessarily believe what we are told but it is easier for some of us to believe that men like you did not spend your waking hours waiting to be sent to inevitable death and your nights in torment, assailed by the sights and sounds of the dead and the dying.
The statue of you standing reading a letter is, like the tomb of the unknown soldier, meant to be a symbol of thanks, an acknowledgment of sacrifice, a universal symbol for the soldiers who die, in all wars. We are not supposed to think you ever questioned your orders, or your superiors. We are not supposed to think you ever thought of the soldiers you were supposed to kill as your brothers in blindly following orders so that your own respective sides did not kill you anyway for what they call cowardice. We, even those of us who are not soldiers, are not supposed to think that those we are told to hate by the powers that be are human beings, with parents, with children, with hopes, dreams, desires or even voices. We are supposed to think that what is now Queen and Country has our best interests at heart and would never lie to us.
For my father, whose own father fought in the trenches, I wrote a poem about a man writing his story during the last night of his life, desperately trying to understand what crime he had committed. He found no peace and concluded that there could not be a God, for no God would allow the suffering he had witnessed and which his soul had made him flee from. He concluded that he and his brothers in arms were mere cannon fodder whose only role was to be attacked and killed until the enemy ran out of resolve or of shells. And by the end he was challenging those who had decided he should die to not wait for dawn, to get on with executing him, and he intended to haunt their dreams forever.
I hope that you feel that you died for something worth dying for, that there was some big idea that your death helped to sustain. However, in the years since your death, more and more people have come to believe that soldiers like you are the first hideous pawns to be shown into hell, sacrificed for the needs of the the ruling classes, which have become ever more the wealthy classes. Notions of nation have become convenient clarion calls to convince soldiers to maintain and further the interests of those who control the oil of the world and make the weapons of the wars.
We are not supposed to think that you gave your life anything but absolutely willingly. We are supposed to look at your statue with wistful nostalgia for a picture of a simpler time we have been presented with, without question. Questions are regarded are treachery. Ours is still not to reason why. But increasingly we do. And maybe one day we will actually have the freedom we are continuously told you died for. If on any level you believed that freedom is what you were fighting for, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, because that notion of freedom is one I hold dear and that notion is why I ask questions of my supposed ‘betters’. But if you felt coerced, if you felt naught but fear, if your soul was torn, torn, and torn again by the witnessing of indescribable horrors, and if finally you died in agony, in shreds, in terror, I weep for you, and I feel a great anger towards those who describe your life, and your death as honourable and noble. You didn’t die in vain. But a mere statue of you reading a letter is a drop in a million oceans of tears that should be shed by those of your age and those of my age, who send you and your brothers to bleed and die so that they can achieve their goals, which are usually to maintain their wealth and position and seats of power.
If they had to be the ones to lead any battle in any war, from the front, there would be no wars. Life is precious. Blood is best kept in the body. But too much is still being spilled for opposing ideas. We are still expected to take sides, and decide the blood of those we side with is worth more than that of the side we oppose. If sacrifice means anything surely it should highlight that in the end we are still human beings. That is what your sacrifice means to me.
William Dean Ford