The Road Home, by Jay Winter.
"The road home from war is always a long one. Some take a lifetime to complete the journey; others finish it in time to take up their lives again. The disabled know the difficulty of the journey home, each in his own way. Anyone with eyes to see can recognize the hardships they and their families face to start their lives once more.
The road home for those who die in war is also not a direct one. Bringing the dead home from Iraq or Afghanistan is something we all understand. The families they leave behind need to mourn them, to take the time we all need to register what has happened to them and to us.
In twentieth century warfare, bringing the bodies of our loved ones home was never easy and sometimes impossible. In the First World War, nearly one million men died in British and Dominion forces. Perhaps half of those men had no known graves. The pulverizing effects of artillery in industrial warfare was to blame; even carefully marked graves had little chance to survive repeated bombardments on a front which did not move much for four long years. During the war, thousands of families received news that a serving soldier was missing in action. But that still left the hope intact that he was a prisoner of war, or hospitalized, or that a bureaucratic error had occurred. The Red Cross did its best to find news, any news, of their whereabouts. Some of these hopes were realized; most were not.
In the vast majority of cases, the missing remained missing in another sense. So many men had no known graves, that it was for many families a kindness that the government decided that the war dead would remain where they had fallen, and their remains would rest together with the men with whom they had served. What an astonishing transformation the architects, and gardeners and masons of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission accomplished in the 1920s. In desolate fields in which not a single tree stood, in places strewn with unexploded ordnance, in sites which resembled lunar landscapes, small, dignified and beautiful English country garden cemeteries appeared by the hundred. These places were different from the larger, more anonymous French or American war cemeteries; British cemeteries kept the human dimensions of the platoon or the company, and remind the visitor to this day that these were men who joined up together, trained together, fought together, and died together. These, the Lost Generation, could have looked each other in the eye, as it were, with casual recognition, finding that now they would rest together for eternity.
Mourning the Lost Generation meant going abroad. That is where they died; that is where they lay. These unalterable facts led to a different kind of journey, in which the living came to the dead. This is pilgrimage, not tourism; it is a sacred, and not a secular act. Pilgrimage is always difficult; it entails an effort, but how little it is for us to give, compared to what those we come to honour gave. We are in debt to them, and it is a debt that can never be discharged.
I have made that journey to the Lost Generation many times. Each time I am surprised by what I see. I find little of the ugliness of war. Instead, what I see are thousands of British war cemeteries scattered all over the world. They are peaceful places, beautifully cared for, with all the order and symmetry of an English country garden.
These are the resting places of men of all faiths or of none at all. Each grave is not marked by a cross, but by a white stone, on which is carved the man's regiment, his name, his rank, his date of death, if known, and a short, moving epigramme chosen by his family. There is a cross in the rear of these cemeteries, but it is not the Latin cross. It is a cross of sacrifice, a medieval symbol of chivalric honor, which serves as a counterpoint to an altar of remembrance, on which is carved the phrase from Ecclesiasticus, 'Their name shall liveth for evermore'. And that is right, because the names are all there, and they are what matters. So many names; so many individuals, so many civilians who put on a uniform in parenthesis as it were, hoping to take it off again and resume their ordinary lives. That was not to be, so we the living pay them the honor of pausing in our lives to acknowledge what they did and what they gave.
Visiting a war cemetery is different from visiting a war memorial at home. We can find these monuments all over Britain. They are not hard to find or hard to get to. They are in schools, in churches, in public squares, and in out of the way places. There are war memorial water troughs, war memorial cricket pitches, and war memorial hospital wards. It does not take an effort to pass one of the monuments in the middle of villages and towns. What do we see there: above all, we see the names. The names are what matter. So many names, every single one a life truncated, a family diminished, hopes unrealized.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Great War, more names were added to war memorials and to war cemeteries. Those who died in the Second World War were less numerous than in the First, but this time 60,000 civilians were among them. This war brought about civilian suffering on an unprecedented scale. While the Armenian genocide of 1915 was a harbinger of things to come, the Second World War transformed the nature of war. The names Auschwitz and Hiroshima tell us that this is so. Still more of - the victims of war - this time mostly civilians -- vanished completely without trace.
Even after the end of the twentieth century, the way human life can simple disappear through an act of violence was brought home to us. At the world trade center on 11 September 2001, approximately 2,700 people were killed. Half of those who died left no known trace, which is about the same proportion as those who vanished completely in the Great War 90 years before.
That is one reason why the return home of men who have died for their country, from Iraq and Afghanistan, or from other sites of violence, needs to be marked carefully. We live in a world where lethal weapons not only kill; they annihilate, they make bodies vanish without trace. They leave us the living without a grave to visit, or a body to honour, without something to touch. These out of body experiences of mourning are still happening today. They require us to find a way to turn the names - always the names - into faces, into those we will never see again.
Once again, it is apparent that we and the generation of the Great War are not so remote from each other as some may think. There are two Great War sites dedicated to precisely this kind of transformation, the kind required by wars which make bodies disappear. The first is the Cenotaph; the Second is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. The first site was inaugurated on 19 July 1919, five days after a victory parade in Paris on the first Bastille Day after the Armistice. The French had a cenotaph made for the event, made of plaster of paris. It came down right after the event. In London the Cabinet asked the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to produce a similar monument, an empty tomb. Much to their surprise, the British people voted with their feet as it were, and adopted this temporary monument as their own. Perhaps two million people walked past it, leaving what they could, and making it necessary for Lutyens to turn it into a permanent monument, the one we see in Whitehall today. Here is the place of homecoming, right in the heart of government, between 10 Downing Street and Westminster; here is the place where the country symbolically brought home the dead of the Great War, and provided a place for those millions of men and women who had no body to honour at the end of the war. Here the dead could rest symbolically, here, at the heart of the nation, in sight of those who had taken the terrible decision to go war, and would know the cost if they ever had to do so again.
A year and a half later, on 11 November 1920, the permanent cenotaph was inaugurated, alongside a second site for those who mourned someone who had vanished in the war. That site is the tomb of the unknown warrior, placed right at the entrance to Westminster Abbey. Anyone entering the abbey has to pass around the unknown to get to any of the illustrious men and women honoured there; he - whoever he was - is in our way, and in our minds, and that is right and proper.
These two sites are unique. They tell us what modern war is; it is a vanishing act, a huge and at times unavoidable clash of arms which makes bodies disappear. These two sites also tell us who we are. We are the legatees of ghosts, trying to remember the men who are not here, but whose absence is impossible to miss. Our lives are described by their deaths. We are here in part because they are not.
This is as true today as it was 100 years ago, when the age of total war began. It is important that we tell our children about this strange face of war, its capacity to make living beings disappear in a flash, for the age of total war is with us still. If anyone doubts this, all he or she should do is to make the pilgrimage, visit one of the 23,000 Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries which span the globe, and look around."
You can read another essay about Jay Winter, and read more about him here.