War is not a flower.

November 11th is a day of observance in several countries. In the United States it is called Veterans Day and in the United Kingdom, Remembrance Day, but the concept behind the commemoration is the same - to never forget the horrors of war and to honor those who were lost in it. In the United Kingdom, the symbol of remembrance is the poppy.

My two-week trek around the UK (and to one city in Italy) culminated last weekend with a stop in Manchester, to visit with a friend who moved there, from Hertford, two years ago. As with every other location that I had already visited, the main purpose of the journey was to spend time with said friend, who we hadn't seen in a while, and to soak up the atmosphere of a new city. This meant, of course that I had no plans for this visit or any idea of where I wanted to go or what I wanted to see. So, our friend suggested that we might all visit the Manchester Art Gallery, as she had been meaning to get over there for some time, and this was the perfect opportunity. Always up for expanding our cultural educations, we readily agreed, and set off in expectation of a delightful afternoon of art.

What we experienced was a few, heart-rending hours of discovery and deep reflection.

By chance, the main exhibition on show was a large collection of works depicting the impact of war, and especially the effects of new military technologies, on both soldiers and civilians. Various artists addressed everything from life in the trenches, to the widespread and devastating impact of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, focusing on the personal experiences of survivors (many of whom had contributed to the collection). The exhibition was raw and emotional from the start, triggering a variety of responses as the viewer moved from the past to the present. The images were haunting. Much of the subject matter was gruesome and uncensored, the better to convey a sense of sheer horror. Despite the heaviness of the art, I felt an invisible pull to stop and examine the details of each work, like an obligation to give each terrible moment its rightful due. We left, our heads dizzy with thought and emotion, and without paying much attention to the other parts of the gallery. Our conversations on what we had seen continued well into the night.

Back in September, I had the opportunity to visit the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red exhibit at the Tower of London. More than 800,000 ceramic poppies fill the moat, each one representing a British fatality during the First World War. The display was absolutely breathtaking, a structural and artistic feat to be sure. When looking at the poppies I experienced a sense of awe at their beauty and admiration for the skills of the artists who had created them, but to be honest, that was it. I knew what (and who) they represented and still, I felt not even a fraction of what had completely consumed me at the Manchester Art Gallery - what I felt when I was forced to connect with the reality of war. It was only after that afternoon in Manchester that I was able to come to grips with the vast difference between the two exhibits, that I was able to see where, despite their loveliness, the poppies had failed.

War is not a flower.

War is debilitating loss and utter devastation. War is fire and chemicals and the destruction found in only your worst nightmares. It is gruesome and inhumane. War is the violent altering of earth's topography and the brutal elimination of entire races. War is hate. It is humiliation. It is physical and emotional pain beyond our understanding. THAT is what war is. Lest we forget.

Many of us don't want to think about this. We prefer an image of beauty and subtle suggestion over the harsh and demoralizing experience of more realistic depictions of suffering. And yet, we dare to talk about war with all the detachment and glory of a young child playing "cops and robbers," never having any real notion of what it all means.

Most of us will never have any real concept of what it means to live through war. We are the fortunate ones. War still exists. It is ongoing and the harsh realities of it are still true. We have a duty to educate ourselves about what so many have experienced and are still experiencing around the world. By ignoring the most honest accounts of war we are, to a certain extent, allowing ourselves to leave the past in the past, but to our own detriment. An understanding of war must be passed on with honesty and clarity, not in a sugar-coated collection of pretty pictures. Only when we view war through the lens of humanity will we ever be able to stop it.

The Sensory War 1914-2014 is on at the Manchester Art Gallery until 22 February 2015. Go see it if you can.

Love, life, peace.


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