Remembering What We Are

Today is Remembrance Day, anniversary of the end of global hostilities in 1918, and an occasion to recall those who have lost their lives in human wars both before and after that date, including the animals. The traditional Sunday service of remembrance at the Animals in War Memorial in London has not taken place this year, for obvious reasons. However, the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals (ASWA), which has organised the event in the past, has now made a short remembrance film in that same place, which can be viewed online.

The service is modest and the filming wholly unpretentious. This is true also of the memorial itself, for all its great size: a literal-minded work of sculpture, it makes a plain statement that can’t be misinterpreted. And evidence that it is indeed appreciated in this same spirit is provided in the film by the worn grass patches clearly noticeable round the dog and the horse who escape through the great curve of stone: many children must have been stroking or embracing these life-like figures.war_horse_banner

At the far end of the stone wall are the words “They had no choice”, and these are rightly picked out by the camera at the end of the film. It’s a point made also in one of the inset episodes, a brief address given at his veterinary clinic in Kabul by the former soldier who has set up a most honourable organization called Nowzad to look after animals injured or displaced by conflicts there. These animals, as he says, “had no choice but to be there in times of war.” Indeed as far as I know no animal has ever exercised choice in the matter, whether caught up in a battle zone, or induced to ‘serve’ in some military capacity, or used in experiments designed to improve military readiness, or made into an offensive weapon. So even when the laboratory element is removed, as the most immediately culpable part of this wretched scene, there will be no end to the dispossession and destruction of animals in wars except by the coming of universal peace. Not the least touching of moments in the film is the final prayer for this most implausible of human possibilities.

After all, if anything were needed to convince one of the fragility of this hope, then Park Lane itself, the site of the memorial, would do. In this fine London thoroughfare there’s so little peacefulness that the minister has to shout to be heard. Behind her, the vehicles can be seen in ceaseless impatient rush. So violent is this mechanized activity, that at one point I mistook the racket for an ill-judged attempt on the part of the film-maker to provide special battle-field sound effects.

But then it might as well be war, as to casualties – and as to mentality too, I would say. Nowadays, in fact, motorized transport is a lot more lethal than war (though of course that may suddenly change). Among humans, it seems that somewhere between one and four hundred thousand lose their lives in war zones each year, whereas about 1.35 million die on the world’s roads. And of course here again the other animals are fatally implicated, though they no more wish to drive than they do to ‘serve’ in war. The numbers of animals killed in traffic accidents are hard to calculate, of course. Not that there isn’t plenty of research into this subject, but its concern is not for the animals, as this quotation from a paper titled ‘Large Animal Crashes: the Significance and Challenges’ will illustrate:

Injuries caused by kangaroos and deer are usually mild, whereas camels falling on the roof of the car cause cervical spine and head injuries to the occupant. The moose causes a typical rear and downward deformability of the vehicle roof. [Note how it’s the animals ‘causing’ all this damage!]

Therefore it’s hard to find estimates of total animal lives lost on roads, but one suggestion, for the USA alone, is 100 million a day. That doesn’t include the less visible animals, needless to say, the ones that certainly won’t cause deformability of the vehicle roof – insects and such.

And then, just as in war, it’s not only on the field of action itself that animals are made to suffer. So-called ‘crash studies’ have provided one of the most hideous episodes in the story of modern vivisection. In futile attempts to use animals, with their various non-human anatomies, as guides to characteristic car-crash injuries, researchers have used dogs, pigs, bears, gorillas, baboons, and other animals in ruthlessly engineered crashes. Although in some of these experiments the animals are said to have been anaesthetized, it’s likely that in many they were not, because the ‘crash’ effects wouldn’t be representative if the animals didn’t brace themselves before the impact.

The film Unnecessary Fuss, produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1984, showed another variety of crash test: the direct striking of animals to imitate particular effects of vehicle collisions. This graphic insight into slovenly and sadistic practices at the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Impact Clinic, where baboons were being use in studies of whiplash injury, caused public indignation. Together with PETA’s subsequent campaign against crash studies being made on behalf of Ford and General Motors, it eventually put an end to this foul class of laboratory research in the USA and also in Europe. Unfortunately, as PETA has recently shown, such research using animals does continue – in China at least.

Elsewhere in this blog, there is some account of the sort of animal-research which accompanied the rise of the railway accident, of space travel, of atomic weaponry. In all stages of the material sophistication of human life, animals seem to have been caught in the machinery, or forced into it – usually both. The poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said in a poem about the modern life of his time (1840s), “Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind.” But at least we chose to be thus ridden; as for the animals, they indeed “had no choice”.

The true situation is horrifyingly pictured in one of the great prophetic works of twentieth-century art, the painting Merry-Go-Round by Mark GertlerGertler. Here the humans are indeed ridden by the machine, which has spun them into a state of mindless half-savage commitment, well reflected in the blaring and unsubtle colours around them, but also they themselves are riding the animals. Yes, the animals are always there underneath, ‘serving’.

Gertler made the painting in 1916. The men are in uniform, regimented, as are the horses they ride. The artist himself was a conscientious objector, with a horror of war (the loom of another war seems to have been one of the prompts to his suicide in the summer of 1939). But the picture is about more than men and women in a mechanized war. It’s about modernity more generally, and the sort of humans it has been making of us: Homo demens, man off his head.

To all this, I recommend the ASWA service as antidote. With its unslick presentation, touchingly solitary minister, stray camera shadows, odd hesitations, even sentimental touches here and there (the poems), it is indeed a remembrance of the true pathos of mortality in which all we animals are alike implicated, and of the morals which belong to that shared situation.

Notes and references:

The ASWA service can be seen here: https://www.aswa.org.uk/news-and-events/aswa-remembrance-service-for-animals-in-war/

The estimate of human deaths on roads is made in a World Health Organization report published this year and posted here: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/road-traffic-injuries. Deaths in war are estimated in this abc news report from 2009: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/story?id=5207645&page=1. Both estimates are necessarily very uncertain.

The paper entitled ‘Large Animal Crashes’ was presented at a conference on human impact injuries in 2015, and is accessible here: http://www.ircobi.org/wordpress/downloads/irc15/pdf_files/42.pdf

A very thorough, witty, and sympathetic article about deaths of animals on roads, titled ‘Driving Animals to their Graves’ (from which the 100 million estimate comes), is posted online here: http://www.culturechange.org/issue8/roadkill.htm

PETA’s news announcement made in October last year about the research in China, ‘PETA Takes on China for Smashing Animals in Bloody Car-Crash tests’, can be seen here: https://www.peta.org/blog/peta-china-car-crash-tests/

The poem by Emerson is titled ‘Ode, inscribed to William H. Channing’.

Mark Gertler’s painting is in the collection of Tate Britain.

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