Speech after long silence

It’s almost remembrance day. This year we are remembering the moment ninety years ago when, as the universal expression puts it, ‘the guns fell silent’. I can find no obvious early reference to that phrase, but we treat it as applying to the Armistice, the latinate word corresponding to the more direct German ‘Waffenstillstand’—both meaning, pretty much, ‘when the guns fall silent’.

The Armistice on the western front had been negotiated in the early hours of the morning of 11th November, 1918. The British representative was Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the First Sea Lord, a position corresponding to Chief of the Naval Staff. According to one account, Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, had asked him to negotiate the Armistice for two o’clock in the afternoon, so that Lloyd George could stand up in the House of Commons and announce that, as he spoke, the weapons were ceasing. (Only in the last decade have the business hours of Parliament been made to conform with those of the working population of the United Kingdom rather than those of the aristocrats and landed gentry.) Wemyss and the others, however, saw no point in three hours additional destruction and fixed the time as eleven o’clock that same morning. The document was signed some time after five a.m.; presumably enough time to pass the message all along the front had to be allowed to prevent mishaps, though there were a few of those anyway.

It is not simply a figure of speech that the guns fell silent at that exact time. The allied troops were supplied with their normal ammunition. No restrictions were placed on activities before the deadline; it seemed a shame to waste the rounds; the Germans had not suddenly become the best of friends; and so the guns blazed all along the front. Then at eleven o’clock, they stopped; and there was no more war.

In that tremendous silence, the most monumental absence of noise in human history, it seems hard to imagine that ‘everybody burst out singing’, as Siegfried Sassoon put it. I do not need to describe the toll taken by the Western Front, a toll utterly unchanged by the recent years of revisionist histories of the war. The combatants were mindful of the horror, but only very few were even covert pacifists. Those from the British Isles, and even most of those from France and Germany, would return in confusion and exhaustion to a country of fields where the earth was still covered in grass and where the ground could be turned over without uncovering skulls and shells, to people whose homely patriotism had been kept going in ignorance of the details of mechanised warfare, and who had only just stopped handing out white feathers to the cowards. In that new quiet up and down the zone of mud and blood, running through fields and woods and villages and lumber yards and culverts and farms, retreating past trenches and dugouts and causeways across the blasted land to auxiliary depots and headquarters and on into the real world beyond, the dead were only just starting to climb out of the ground and grip the living. I would think that very little came to fill the silence, at that moment, through the November chill, until, perhaps, those who understandably did not want to think decided to cheer instead.

I have just returned from seeing a live relay of John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, a reference to the Berkeley physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific leader (in more modern science jargon, ‘principal investigator’) of the Manhattan Project. It describes the day leading up to the test of the first nuclear bomb in July 1945. At the end, the chorus crouch in darkened goggles facing the audience; there is a wordless ‘ah’, and a sense in the orchestra of something coming down. Then there is a flash; then there is silence. After the silence, there was a Japanese voice calling for water; but it was a voice, too, amidst silence. Oppenheimer, years later, famously said he had remembered the Bhagavad Gita, and quoted it as saying ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’, although a modern translation has ‘Time I am [in transliterated Sanskrit, kalo 'smi], the destroyer of worlds.’ and another has something similar. Time, on that occasion, may not have been the destroyer; but death by ice, as Robert Frost said, is also great.

This was a more terrible silence, certainly. Yet there must have been jubilation here, too; and in the following months, the feeling that those who participated had won the war, however less certain we may be nowadays.

The tests were named Trinity; the Wikipedia article suggests Oppenheimer was thinking of one or more poems by John Donne. At the end of the first act of Doctor Atomic, in one of the most effective pieces of opera I have ever seen, Oppenheimer stands alone beneath the ‘gadget’ the night before the test. Orchestral music arises out of nothing, at once repetitive and chaotic, like the thoughts of the man on stage, or like the thoughts of the soldiers after the Armistice. Oppenheimer then sings the words of one of Donne’s sonnets, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’. One can imagine Donne awakening in the night (as he says at the start of one of his sermons) and trying to hear the spirit of God filling the silence; I thought of Peter Grimes, in another great opera written the same year as Trinity, hearing the ghostly voices of the villagers in the darkness.

Los Alamos, where the experiment was performed, is now a national laboratory for many different sorts of fundamental physics, though its original purpose survives. It was put in the middle of nowhere for obvious and compelling reasons. A colleague of mine when I was a physicist—who I was told worked for ‘X division’ itself, though I’m probably not allowed to know that—called it ‘Lost Animals’; the nearest town of any size is Santa Fe, a fair drive away, where the quiet is effectively filled either by thoughts of how the universe works, or by looking for the helicopter speed traps of the local police. Most of my colleagues worked for the considerably less practically minded ‘T division’, and one of them pointed out to me that Santa Fe is a well-known centre for alternative lifestyles, leading to (possibly imaginary, but appealing) encounters at parties along the lines of ‘Hey man, how ya doin? So what do ya, like, do?’ ‘Oh, I make thermonuclear weapons’. Silence.

Los Alamos was a rather democratic place for the young researchers smart enough to find positions there (I was not one of them); each batch of short term appointees picked their own successors. There wasn’t much else to do nearby; some learned to fly, or tried to, since it seems not all physicists are particularly good at flying. I don’t think there’s ever been a war or major battle nearby, though the Jornada del Muerto, an old Spanish trail, runs nearby; it seems the name ‘dead man’s journey’ probably refers to one particular dead man, rather than the arid conditions with their fierce summer heat.

Silence is thoroughly ambiguous, pregnant possibly with new thoughts and worries and imaginations, possibly with the realisation of horror, possibly with nothing at all. It is at those moments that we are closest to knowing how partial is our awareness of the world. Usually it only lasts a moment because the instinct is to suppress it, turn back to something immediate, regain a well-worked-out thread of thought that we are unlikely to lose.

I find it sobering to think that, even in those two vaster silences that define the hubbub of the twentieth century, the urge was probably the same: push away the bad as quickly as possible, seek equilibrium. Indeed, what else could they do to survive and take their places again? For those who dwelled on the war they had fought in the trenches lay bad dreams and even madness. For those like Oppenheimer who came to feel the knowledge of what of they had done weighing upon them, the guilt was not something to recommend them to a truculent and forward-looking postwar world.

Yet here I sit in the early hours of Remembrance Day, 2008, in a quiet suburb, down the road from the war memorial that sits in almost every village in Britain, and the silence and fear and sense of some huge, incomprehensible vanity of destruction unleashed by my relatives (who were on both sides of the Western Front) makes me wonder which is better: ignorance and the strength to build a healthy future; or insight and the curse of lying awake, ‘curtains drawn upon unfriendly night’, listening to the whispers of the ghosts of tens of millions dead in the eerie quiet of an age filled with almost heroes and not-quite villains but empty of the certainty of good and evil.

Peter Stephenson <p.w.stephenson@ntlworld.com>
Last modified: Sat Dec 13 17:28:31 GMT 2008