If any one event on this year’s LitFest calendar was going to stake a claim for the headline performance then this was surely it. In front of a sell out crowd of three hundred ticket holders that included the town Mayor and Wilfred’s own nephew Peter, former broadcast war reporter and independent politician Martin Bell OBE delivered the inaugural Wilfred Owen lecture.
BBC Radio Shropshire’s Eric Smith introduced Martin, instantly recognizable in the white suit that has become his trademark, onto the stage. He started his talk lightly, joking that he was very nearly late because of a computer glitch that had delayed his train journey. Unusual for Arriva Trains as they barely seem to have engines on occasions, let alone computers. He went on to say that it was a great honour to have been invited by the LitFest team to give the first Wilfred Owen Lecture on what was the 121st anniversary of the poet’s birth and in the very church where he had been baptised. Martin revealed that he was a great admirer of Owen’s poetry and had carried a dog-eared collection of his poems into war zones around the world during his years as a reporter.
Martin began his lecture by highlighting the great importance of Owen’s poetry, he argued that to describe the realities of war needed the power of poetry as the journalists of the time were simply not up to the job. The people back home were not to be told of the true realities of the conflict in Europe, the horrors were diluted or hidden completely by the very journalists that should have been presenting the truth. Once the war was over, the six principal war reporters who had been complicit in this act were rewarded in the King’s Honour List with Knighthoods and the newspaper proprietors received their peerages. It was the writings of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg amongst others who stood defiant in the face of this propaganda with their often horrific, nightmarish descriptions of the reality of war.
Sadly in the years since these poets were penning their finest works we have begun to unlearn their lessons. This process of revisionism as he called it is being led by our newspapers and politicians. Martin brought up an editorial that had been published in The Times from last year in which his own nephew had argued that the British troops had righteously fought a war that was just and in a necessary cause. He also quoted the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, as writing that ‘the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war’. Martin argued that the problem with many of these journalists and politicians, the so-called revisionists, is that they have never heard a shot fired in anger. They have never felt the wake of a bullet flash past their ear or struggled to differentiate the sound of incoming or outgoing mortar fire. Unlike Wilfred Owen, they have never had to keep the company of the unburied dead.
As we enter the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of World War One Martin argues that we are more and more being asked to celebrate a glorious, righteous victory rather than mourn the victims of a tragic and calamitous struggle for all those countries who were involved in it. As an answer to all the revisionists and triumphalists Martin quoted a poem by Rudyard Kipling composed after the death of his only son in the Battle of Loos.
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
He also quoted one of last year’s headline acts from the LitFest, Michael Morpurgo who is to deliver the annual Peace Lecture. Michael said that we should remember to read the poems and diaries of the soldiers, we should visit the graves of those who did not return home and we should not wave flags unless it is the lowering of the flags of all the nations who lost their sons, unless it is to celebrate the peace we now share and to reaffirm the commitment to guard the freedom but guard it through further peace.
Martin is of the opinion that we are living in an incredibly dangerous period of history, potentially the most dangerous since the end of the Second World War. Our troops are fighting expeditionary wars in the countries where their fathers and grandfathers fought. Places such as Iraq & Afghanistan are mentioned over and over on the roll of battle honours of every infantry regiment. The difference between now and one hundred years ago is that we no longer have the poets and artists to stand as the voices of truth and that as a result we have lost something of the sense of great pity and wastefulness of conflict. This centenary is the time to retrieve that. Martin argues that work of the War poets had the impact that it did not only because of the power of their words but because it connected with the reality of war as experienced by the hundred and thousands of veterans. They knew the truth of conflict and the old lie Dulce et Decorum Est was discredited forever.
The events of the Second World War only served to confirm the poets’ belief in the pity and senselessness of war and over the next forty years we were led by politicians who had experienced one, or both, of the conflicts and were therefore under no illusion as to the usefulness of war in delivering political outcomes. Martin asked the audience to consider how Britain had not been dragged into the US conflict in Vietnam during the 1960s. It is his opinion that we should be thankful to the Defence Secretary Dennis Healey, who was a beach master at Anzio in 1944 and having been there and experienced the reality of war, could see no national interest in sending in our troops. Martin quoted President Johnson: ‘Make no mistake about it, America wins the wars she fights.’ Only they didn’t win that one, and they lost some fifty-seven thousand men along the way.
He recalled having a conversation with Lord Carrington in the 70s who revealed that every member of Ted Heath’s cabinet had served in uniform during the Second World War with one exception, Margaret Thatcher, and it was said, that she would have made an effective and merciless machine gunner. When Thatcher came to power she was advised by veterans of that great global conflict but she did go to war and Britain did eventually prevail. However, Martin had a sobering statistic for any potential warmongers, during the Falklands conflict Britain lost two hundred and fifty two soldiers, sailors and marines. Since the task force returned home, more than that number have gone on to take their own lives.
Nowadays we are led by politicians who have no direct experience of war. They fly in dressed in their khaki for their photo shoots but their experience of conflict is carefully managed and sanitized. Martin argues that going to war should never be a policy decision but that in recent times, it has appeared to have become so. What would Wilfred Owen have made of the seeming nonchalance at which Britain has entered into conflict in the last twenty years Martin asked. We are currently reaching the end of our fourth Afghan conflict, we did not win the other three and we have not won the fourth. We have declared victory and left the field. It pained Martin to point out that one of the biggest lessons of history is that we don’t learn the lessons of history.
Martin then went on to talk about the perceived threats that we faced in the modern day, threats that he has encountered face to face during his twelve years as UNICEF’s self proclaimed expendable ambassador. He has experienced wars not only of territorial aggression, but of climate change as well. He has seen huge swathes of population forced from their homes and turned into refugees across the continent of Africa. There are also unresolved ideological issues between East & West, hangovers from the Cold War that have the potential to flare up, as we have just seen in Ukraine. The three year civil war in Syria that has seen more than a million children driven from their homes, the ever present threat of jihad, the perils of nuclear proliferation, the return of pirates and even of child soldiers. Even as a journalist with decades of experience Martin admitted that he couldn’t even begin to describe this kind of thing. He argued that now is the time where we need a Wilfred Owen, a George Orwell, someone who is able to clarify these issues through the power of their words. At the very least we need a resurrection of our journalism, which in his opinion has become far too obsessed with the irrelevant comings and goings of the current celebrity trends.
Martin believes that in the post 9/11 world, today’s war reporters are working in a much more dangerous environment. Previously, the biggest risk was to be caught in the cross fire; now however, they are increasingly seen as legitimate targets. He highlighted the case of Tim Hetherington, a British journalist who was stationed with an American infantry company in Afghanistan and who made one of the most authentic accounts of the conflict in his movie ‘Restrepo’. Martin had been invited to introduce the West End premiere of the film where Tim told him that the response from the soldiers and their families had been very positive, not so much from the Pentagon. Five months later, whilst covering the Libyan conflict Tim was hit by mortar fragments and bled to death on the side of the road.
Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times was another example. She had made an impassioned plea for international intervention to save the people of Homs. The next day she was hit by Syrian artillery fire and died.
These were just two cases that Martin brought to our attention; they are by no means isolated. As a result there has been an understandable reaction amongst today’s war reporters to draw back into the green zones, hotel rooftops and other ‘safe’ areas. Martin believes that there has been a loss of authenticity to the reports. He recalled an incident where he had to drive along an airstrip in the middle of gunfire during one conflict. He described the gunfire hitting his car as sounding more like the dull plop of heavy rain instead of the crack and bang used in the films. Having survived he penned a latter to Vauxhall, thanking them for making a car that would stand up to such a test. Due to the dangers posed to reporters, wars are very rarely reported from among the people affected by them. Instead we are given snapshots by an embedded reporter, which whilst being significantly better than no reports, provide just one part of the picture and Martin argues that if you have just one part of the picture then you really don’t have enough.
Martin was not overly critical of today’s reporters; it was more an acknowledgement that times had changed. He admitted that during the Vietnam conflict he too was guilty of neglecting the people affected by the fighting, he was over-impressed by the American military might. It took Martin thirty years to find his voice, to realize that wars are expressly about the people involved as humans, not numbers. You cannot begin to get it right until you understand the pity of war, which is what Wilfred Owen managed.
Martin professed his great fondness for poetry that speaks from the heart, the poems he would most liked to have written himself were not the works of Shakespeare or Wordsworth but Sassoon’s Everyone Sang and Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth. He ended his lecture by quoting the end of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est
Pro Patria Mori.
This was addressed to the pro-war poetess Jessie Pope who urged the young men to sign up for the sacrifice that waited for them on the frontline. He mentioned it because today we have our own Jessie Pope’s who see war as an adventure or a policy decision. They are in the Houses of Parliament, in our newspapers and on our televisions. In Martin’s own words ‘they are profoundly wrong. They must be challenged and resisted.’
Throughout the course of his lecture Martin Bell delivered an impassioned cry against those warmongers in our society. Interspersed with topical and humorous observations from his time as both a highly regarded war reporter and successful independent politician he never once failed to captivate his audience. From start to finish he was a fitting choice as the guest speaker for the inaugural Wilfred Owen lecture and has set the bar for those who follow him. I wish to finish this review as Martin finished his lecture:
‘Let us here tonight, in this town and this church, pay tribute to the greatest English poet who ever lived. The man who lived with the unburied dead, Oswestry’s own Wilfred Owen.’
by RICHARD MORRIS
Oswestry LitFest 2014
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Member since: 10th July 2012
A quick introduction - I'm John Waine, Director of TheBestOfOswestry. Having lived in this beautiful area for around 20 years now, I have decided to stay. :)
With kind thanks