The Wootton Bassett thing

I’m finding these displays of so-called public grief at Wootton Bassett increasingly hollow. Most particularly, the man who leads the funeral cortège in his black frock coat and top hat manages to lend the whole thing a weird swagger, with his stick in his hand and his strangely mannered walk. Who does he think he is – Master of Ceremonies? (Well, yes.) It’s all done in the name of ‘paying respect’ and therefore ‘beyond reproach’, but for me, it’s neither. It has a synthetic quality, an entirely faux solemnity, a ritualised performance staged for the benefit of the gathered ranks of cameras and commentators.

The whole spectacle is ably assisted by the assembled veterans, dipping the regimental colours (is that what they are?) as the hearses drive by. Where do they – the veterans, not the matching fleet of sleek black vehicles – come from? I have this uncomfortable feeling that they’re being bussed in. Wootton Bassett has a population of 11,000 and, while I have no idea what proportion of an average small town’s population would consist of former servicemen with nothing else to do than dust off their medals, put on their berets and rummage around in the garage for that old flag on a stick and then hang around with their regimental comrades in the High Street waiting for a cortège to happen by… it all seems a somewhat unlikely, if perfectly understandable alternative to another day down at the allotment. Someone unkinder than me has described it as grief tourism. I've also heard it called 'recreational grief'.

It’s the militarism that jars the most. I had the same sense last year on Remembrance Day (qv somewhere in the blog): that in some way, a superior moral ground is being occupied, that this expression of respect for the dead is more dignified and honourable because it’s regimental – the army as family, looking after its own – and we should be grateful because it’s all being done in our name. WW1 veteran and centenarian Harry Patch described the business at the Cenotaph as show business (woe business?). For me, this stuff at Wootton Bassett is in the same mould.

These young people getting killed, first in Iraq, now in Afghanistan, don’t deserve to be dead, even if they chose to be in the army and accepted the risks attached. Their loss to their families and friends is no more and no less devastating than that of a mere civilian: the uniform offers no more protection against grief than did their armour. It’s the loss that’s left and felt. And they were people – husbands, wives, mums, dads, sons and daughters before they were soldiers. I wouldn’t want for one moment to deny their families the consolation that ritual seems to offer: I start to get uncomfortable when they speak of being proud of their sacrifice, or worse, “he died doing the job he loved”.

Are they dying for their country? I think the argument that this is all being done for our greater protection is false. The truth, for me, is that we’re likely to be pissing more people off by being there than if we weren’t; the battle for control of Afghanistan isn’t our battle, it’s the Afghans’; this insistence that they adopt a form of democracy that more closely resembles ours is a kind of chauvinism: we might not like what they do to each other, but is that any reason to occupy them, to attempt to impose our systems on them, at such obscene cost – to the Afghans no less than to us? And what gruesome equation is there within the labyrinths of the Department of Defence that calculates the cost, the value, the investment of the death toll and decides that it’s worth it?

I’d like to think all this ritual in the High Street of Wootton Bassett is actually an expression of our collective guilt. That, at least, would recognise that there’s something wrong with what we’re doing. But it’s not; if anything, there’s a streak of belligerent defiance in it and I wish it would stop.

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