Remembering World War I

What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth.

Johnny's letters had become franker when he knew Dan was on his way. He wrote to him: 'Don’t you bloody-well come to France. If you do I'll shoot you myself rather than let you go into the trenches.'
Thomas Keneally, recalling his uncles Johnny and Dan

Writers, artists, film-makers and others have published an open letter objecting to David Cameron's plans to commemorate World War I. Cameron thinks the centenary of that dreadful slaughter bears comparison with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. He wants the commemoration to be "truly national." The letter, on the other hand, calls on people "to ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation."

That's an initiative that everyone should support. So it's a pity that the open letter includes a rather puzzling statement. It says:

"In 2014, we and others across the world will be organising cultural, political and educational activities to mark the courage of many involved in the war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused."

Courage is a strange place to start from. The industrial slaughter of World War I made courage obsolete.

The men who volunteered to fight before conscription was introduced (in 1916, in Britain) certainly showed a degree of courage. But it probably wasn't too hard to muster that kind of courage in the prevalent atmosphere of hysterical patriotism. British men who didn't do so risked being handed a white feather by women friends, or indeed by women they passed in the street.

By the time the men arrived in the places where their courage would be tested, none of them – conscripts or volunteers – had any choice at all.

Again and again they lined up at dawn, heroes and cowards side by side, waiting for a signal. And then they ran through a storm of flying metal, knowing that if they did not do so they would be shot.

Sometimes some of them reached the far side of the storm. There, in an enemy trench, they would fight with bayonets for their lives, heroes and cowards alike.

They passed their lives with very little hope, and with no freedom at all.

In corners here and there, bits and pieces of the human spirit still flowered. Even courage. Miraculous, beautiful, irrelevant.

A hundred years on, anyone who wants to commemorate the courage of those involved in the war is certainly entitled to do so. Just as they are entitled to commemorate the beautiful wide skies of northern France or the poppies springing up from the mud. But none of these things mattered very much a hundred years ago. They certainly shouldn't be the focus of our commemorations today.

The Open Letter on How We Should Remember World War I is still open for signatures. Sign it by all means. The issue is too important to draw back from because of a quarrel over an ill-considered sentence. But if you are using the anniversary to promote peace, please don't steal the language of those who would glorify terror and dumb hopelessness.