Friday, 22 August 2008
Bringing home the dead
It may be the middle of the Olympics but, when I turned on the TV, there were no sports and the news had been delayed. The state funeral for ten French soldiers killed in Afghanistan was carried live.
I don't approve of war and I don't usually like state ceremonies. I'm opposed to most of President Sarkozy's policies, including his pursuit of the west's unwinnable war in Afghanistan. But when I watched the end of the funeral ceremonies in the courtyard of Les Invalides, he seemed to have done something right.
Certainly the funeral included rhetoric about the heroism of war. The the French President - and most of his cabinet - faced the ten coffins and watched saw the grief of the families of the dead. Wives, children, parents clutched one another and cried. In turn they stooped over the flag-draped coffin that held the familiar flesh and kissed it - some once, some many times. No-one could erase their pain - it was part of the ceremony.
Soldiers, ministers and families faced that grief as the band played the Marseillaise.
There was a strange ceremony - strange to me, though I think it's familiar in France. Sarkozy stood at the foot of each coffin in turn and appointed each dead soldier, by name, a knight of the Legion d'Honeur. So far as I could see, he had no notes. He had to speak the name of each soldier in turn before pinning the medal on a red cushion at the foot of the coffin. I couldn't help recalling what happened when Maya Evans and Milan Rai read the names of the British soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
Of course, there were gaps. The debate about the war and the funerals of the Afghan dead take place elsewhere. But it seemed right that a President should name and honour the dead while his cabinet stands with head bowed. It seemed right that the leader who pursues a war should pay homage to the men he sent to kill and be killed in pursuit of his policy. It seemed right that a country should see mourning and grief on live TV.
So far, 116 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan. 176 have died in Iraq. I haven't noticed any state funerals, though there have been public messages of condolence to the families. Sometimes the funerals have been reported. Sometimes these are intimate family occasions with uniformed soldiers joining the congregation. On other occasions they are full-scale military events. Sometimes there are no coffins because there are no remains. Some funerals include denunciations of the war and attacks on government policy.
The absence of British cabinet ministers from the funerals of dead soldiers seems a kind of cowardice but perhaps it's just the usual concern for image and spin. In the United States this goes further. President Bush has attempted to prevent journalists from acquiring any photographs of the coffins coming home.
At the end of the French state funeral I saw something else surprising. There was a soldier in a wheelchair. His comrades were helping him over the cobbles. In Britain we don't see much of the injured. A group of severely injured soldiers wanted to join the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the cenotaph last year. At first they were encouraged to take part. Then they were told they weren't welcome because serving soldiers aren't allowed.
They do things differently in France.