When a memorial to the Royal Air Force Bomber Command opened in Green Park in London in June this year, it was greeted with a cacophony of debate. Discussions of its message and architectural merit became entangled almost immediately with a renewed dispute over the morality of Britain’s bombing campaign in Dresden during the Second World War. The fact that the memorial includes a quotation from an ancient Greek politician received, quite understandably, little attention. The architecture critic Rowan Moore was among the few who spotted it, writing in the Observer that the inscription was ‘defiant and triumphant, using quotations from Churchill and Pericles to justify the bombings’. Otherwise, the quote passed unnoticed. Or perhaps it just seemed appropriate for such a memorial, whether or not the memorial was itself appropriate.
‘Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.’ The words on the plinth come from another memorial to the war dead: the Funeral Oration of Pericles, delivered at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. The year before, Sparta had provoked the Athenians, demanding that they ‘give the Greeks their freedom’ — in other words, dissolve their empire — as the price of peace. Pericles, the best speaker and the most influential man in the democracy, persuaded the Athenians that they had the resources to win any conflict, and so they refused all concessions.
The first year of war was inconclusive. Following Pericles’ strategy, the Athenians withdrew behind their city walls while the Spartans ravaged their territory. Elsewhere, there were a few skirmishes. That winter, as the contemporary historian Thucydides recounts, the Athenians gave a public funeral for those who had died. As was their custom, ‘a man chosen by the city for his intellectual gifts and general reputation’ was to make a speech in praise of the dead. It fell to Pericles, the man who had persuaded them to start the war.
Pericles’ oration was a masterpiece of rhetoric, and has been quoted and imitated ever since. In praising those who gave their lives for the city and justifying their sacrifice, it has supplied posterity with appropriate words for all such occasions of public commemoration, especially in the 20th century. The line from the Bomber Command memorial, a rather idiosyncratic translation of the original Greek, first appeared in 1924 on the Soldiers’ Tower at the University of Toronto. Over the next decade it was adopted for memorials and remembrance ceremonies across the ANZAC nations.
A line from the previous section of Pericles’ speech, ‘the whole earth is the tomb of famous men’, has proved even more popular, appearing on monuments to known and unknown soldiers from Athens to Auckland. A more accurate version of ‘Freedom is the sure possession…’ appears on the websites of numerous US veterans’ organisations: ‘Be convinced that to be happy means to be free and that to be free means to be brave.’ Sometimes it comes with the mistranslated coda ‘therefore do not take lightly the perils of war’ (Pericles actually told his audience not to worry too much about danger).
Whichever version is chosen, one reason for the popularity of Pericles’ words in this context must surely be the way they serve multiple purposes. They both honour the dead and insist that such sacrifices are necessary for the defence of freedom. They even suggest that it is only those who are willing to fight for freedom who truly deserve to enjoy it, a flattering thought for the many veterans who feel undervalued by civil society. The line serves a similar function to another popular quote wrongly attributed to Thucydides (not least by the House Armed Services Committee): ‘The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.’
More insidiously, quoting Pericles presents any given conflict as a struggle for freedom from tyranny and legitimises war as the proper response. That might have been fair in the Second World War, but it is not so obviously true of the First World War. Yet that was precisely when Thucydides’ words were given this role in Britain: extracts from the Funeral Oration were printed up as pamphlets, and quotes appeared on posters on London buses. And if it was doubtful then, the support of Pericles now is even more questionable as a justification for our own overseas adventures.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/there-is-a-sting-in-the-tale-we-use-to-remember-the-fallen