Historians often talk about war with a kind of reverence, even awe. Heroic deeds, great man, battles won and battles lost. Even criticisms– the lions led by donkeys, the rage against war– come with a kind of admiration for the spirit and the bravery of those who suffered and died, for those who suffered and survived.
All those who fought in the Great War in the Easter rising in the Ireland of 1919 to 1923 are gone. And that poses the question of how we understand them now. It may be easier if we see them plainly, if we deal in brave men winning or losing for causes deeply felt, for belief profoundly held. If we see triumph and failure, heroism and death, if we let our pulses quicken, our chests swell with pride, whatever anthem is sung.
This kind of history has been knitted into the fabric of who we are in North in South, of who we are in Britain and in Ireland. There’s no undoing that, and perhaps there should not be.
But does this history tell us what it was to fight when choosing to go to war may well have come from a mixture of motives far more complicated than the obvious reasons we might have seen on many people’s parts?
Do we default too readily to the stylised wars of our imaginations? The wars of poets, novelists, filmmakers? The wars won well? The wars of noble and nearly always poignant deaths? Should we ask instead what it was to fight when fighting meant doing whatever it took to survive, to come home, to see again what was loved or missed? When fighting was enjoyable? When fighting became the one thing you were good at? When fighting with something you didn’t really want to leave behind?
History can be protective and reverential towards the dead, but often far more uneasy about those that the fighting left behind, the scarred and injured reminders of causes perhaps later compromised, of promises made and never kept.
This week we are not interested in the great men of our various wars great and small. You can find them elsewhere lauded and applauded. Are there far more ordinary, more challenging, more diverse experiences to seek that may just tell us more of what it was to fight or not to fight, to loathe and to enjoy all kinds of wars? Ethel Burrows died in Belfast in the 27th of August, 1920. She was 16 years old. She had been shot two days before as crowds clashed and police and military fired to clear the streets. She was out with her friend, Minnie Stevenson, after a hard week’s work, walking about on her Saturday off.
We might not like to think of fighting as being about killing a 16-year-old girl, but fighting can be about the things not meant, the deaths in the wrong places, the unfortunates who found themselves somehow in war’s way.
This week, we need to think about what it was to fight, what drove some to act and others not. We need to consider those who fought less obvious, less orthodox kinds of wars. When did war overstep its mark? Not necessarily by our modern, maybe more squeamish standards, but by the standards of the day, however they were set? We need to think what were asked of those who did fight, whether in war or revolution, or however the fighting is defined, and begin to measure some of the mark it made on those the fighting left behind.