Dulce et decorum est?

Charles Cowling



I don’t suppose anyone is left unmoved by news coverage of the repatriation of dead soldiers from Afghanistan and their subsequent solemn processions through Wootton Bassett. Everyone has an opinion, as is their entitlement. These soldiers are members of that group of people who have both a public role and a separate personal life, so, like dead firefighters and policemen, many will have a dual funeral.

People’s feelings run the full gamut, of course, from pride to despondency. These deaths are glorious or they are terrible waste of young men’s lives.

To be sure, they take some justifying in the public arena. It was halfway through the last century that Britain conceded that that it is futile folly to foist its values on people who don’t want them. “Lesser breeds without the law”, as Kipling described them, have every right to misgovern themselves—or just govern themselves differently.

Britain gave away its empire but forgot the lesson it had learned. Subsequent adventures in nation building as ill-equipped junior partners of the US have led to defeat in Basra and a losing fight in Afghanistan. Liberal democracy doesn’t grow well in all sorts of soils. Dammit, the Italians have been toying with it since 500 BC and they’ve still got no further than Berlusconi.

So, these deaths. They affect us all. Those processions through Wootton Bassett, they focus our feelings, whatever they are.

My own feelings scapegoat the undertaker leading the procession. What’s he doing there? What’s his purpose? Why hearses? Don’t these dead soldiers still inhabit their public role? Why has the Army handed them over to civilians? Can’t the Army see it through with them and convey them in suitable military vehicles?

I picked up the phone.

First, who are the undertakers? Kathryn has a hunch they’re Barry Albin’s men. I rang to confirm. No, I was told, these are Kenyon’s men. Kenyon’s, if you didn’t know, is a branch of Dignity. This is their repatriation arm—in which, Albin’s conceded, they have a sizeable financial stake.

Next, I rang the Ministry of Defence press office. Why hearses? Because they’re appropriate, dignified; we couldn’t put them in the back of a 10-ton truck. I’m not suggesting that; haven’t you got anything else that would do? No, we haven’t. Okay then, what about the undertaker? What’s he doing there? I thought you guys were world leaders in ceremonial? Why not a military figure? After this the conversation came apart somewhat. I asked, These soldiers are going to the coroner, right? So why hearses? We use hearses for funerals, not removals. The reply: I think you’ll find that those who witness these processions consider them to be very moving and dignified. Yes, okay, but couldn’t you do it better? I put it to you, here’s another way of looking at it, it’s a possible point of view, couldn’t you do better than have these brave young men and women led by a mincing popinjay twirling a stick?

No. The overwhelming majority of people would wholly disagree with me.

It’s possible that my animus is simply displaced anger; that these blameless men in cod-Victorian clobber are not proper objects of my wrath. Yes, I concede that.

But I can’t shed a strong sense that it could all be done much better.