Friday, November 10, 2006

Lest We Forget

"Lest we forget" is the catchphrase around this time of year. It comes from Rudyard Kipling's 1897 poem "Recessional." Obviously, he didn't have the World Wars in mind at that early date (actually, maybe he did; he predicted that the Boer War was just a skirmish and the most important war of all time was yet to come in the early 20th century. But this poem is not about that). My best prof happened to be a Kipling expert, so this is what I learned from her.

First, you need to know a few things about Imperialism and Kipling's view of it. Kipling spent a good portion of his life in India, where he was born. He must have seen the toll Imperialism had on colonized peoples. At a time when Imperialism happened in faraway places that ordinary people didn't see, it was easy to turn a blind eye towards its effects, or just not know about them. Rudyard Kipling knew. He knew that Imperialism was one of the ugliest things there is. And yet, he felt that it was necessary; apalling, but necessary. The same went for war in general; there was nothing glorious about it (many people at the time were suckered into the notion, though), but it was necessary. The "lest we forget" enters here: as necessary as war and Imperialism were, Kipling felt that it was of vital importance that we always remember the cost it exacted.

And what was that cost? Interestingly enough, not the sacrifice that soldiers make in going to war. Rather, it was the sacrifice we make of our soldiers. It is our duty to know why that sacrifice was made, and why it is important. One other interesting point: "lest we forget" is, I think, now linked to the general idea that soldiers fight for peace. Kipling, though, believed that soldiers died for freedom, not for peace (remember, war is necessary and you can't get rid of it). What he despairs of is that the sacrifice we have made of others will be rendered faceless.

Others didn't share Kipling's views. In 1899, for example, Robert Buchanan accused Kipling of "hooliganism" (sounds almost like soccer). Buchanan thought Imperialism itself was a noble goal, and shouldn't acknowledge the nature of its own project. We shouldn't know the cost that Imperialism exacts.

From the 1890s on, Kipling's work predicted an English war with Germany. That coming war, Kipling felt, was the war that mattered. Kipling believed that Britain was unprepared for such a war—and they were. He believed that the treatment of ordinary soldiers would put them at risk—and it did. The crazy prevailing view was that soldiers were too stupid to do anything other than walk forwards in rows. We all know how that turned out. Here's the last bit of Kipling's poem "Tommy":
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country," when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool — you bet that Tommy sees!


Blake said...

That was a good post.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, I am in total agreement with Blake. That was a great post. I didn't know where the 'lest we forget' motto came from. Tis sad, cause I rather like Kipling's poetry. But i only have on book of his earlier stuff. and i agree with kipling's view of wars and what it is we shouldn't forget.

Lapsura said...

I'm not sure who I agree with when it comes to war. I do agree with Kipling's idea that we shouldn't ignore or be ignorant of the nature of war, or Imperialism, or anything that affects people really. Maybe that's because I realize I'm so very ignorant of what's going on in most of the world.

I first heard "Tommy" recited in a genuine Newfoundland accent. All hail Dr. Johnston, queen of English, who continues to singlehandedly inspire me in further English studies and theory. I don't like a lot of poetry, but I do like "Tommy," so I have it written out in full on my mainpage here.

Blake said... doesn't work

Blake said...

now it does

Lapsura said...

Sure it does. You're just delirious. Yep, that's how you conjugate that verb.

Lapsura said...

that's right.

Anonymous said...

I just like how the date helps me remember my own anniversary. Lest I forget.