Throughout the year a vast tide of blood-red poppies has been sweeping over the land. They cascade from church pulpits and castle battlements, flow down lamp posts and spill out into municipal parks and private gardens. Poppies are tied to radiator grilles, pinned to buttonholes, printed on scarves and dangle from pet collars. Silhouettes of World War I Tommies stand in graveyards, surprise us on street corners, burst out of hedges and break the skyline as no real soldier ever would. On Sunday, in a huge act of collective remembrance, Britain will mark the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day with memorial services and parades, a two-minute silence and the plangent tones of a bugler sounding the Last Post. It will not be without controversy, however; for, as each year passes, and the personal connection some of us have with those who died in World War I or II begins to fade, the whole idea of remembering becomes more problematic, particularly as we do not seem to agree about what we are remembering or why.
Problems with the idea of remembrance
For me, as a Catholic, the act of remembering is relatively uncomplicated because it is always associated with prayer. During the two-minute silence, I pray for the dead — all the dead who have died in war, whatever side they were on — and I ask God to teach us how to live at peace with one another. A friend once challenged me on this, asking how I could pray for those who have been guilty of war crimes. My reply was simple: prayer isn’t a reward for being good (i.e. being on the ‘right’ or winning side); it isn’t some kind of Good Conduct medal we bestow on those we deem worthy of it; it is an acknowledgement that sin and suffering have scarred the face of humanity and we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. This kind of prayer is a prayer of repentance, a plea for help in which gratitude and regret are equally mixed; and it is our privilege to offer it for the dead and for ourselves.
But what of those who don’t or can’t pray, for whom Remembrance Sunday has nationalistic, even jingoistic, overtones, or who see the commemoration as an exercise in collective nostalgia, shot through with sentimentality? Is there a point at which we should stop remembering, or is the problem more to do with how we remember? There is something to be said for both. To my mind, a centenary marks a natural division. Those who fought in the First World War are now all dead, as are those who took part in the earlier conflicts we now forget or leave to the historians to recall. How we remember is more complicated. We do not simply pray for the dead on Remembrance Sunday, we surround the day with the trappings of Establishment and nationalism or kidnap it to advance an agenda of our own about Brexit, race or empire, to name just a few. I question whether that is what those who took part in World War I or World War II would wish us to do — or even understand.
How older generations looked at war
For instance, I have been pondering how my parents and grandparents thought about war. The men went off to fight because it was their duty, so they said, but they had no personal animosity or grievance against those with whom they fought. They did not hate; they did not think themselves superior; they believed, most of the time, in the cause for which they fought, but they weren’t blind to the contradictions inherent in it. One of my grandfathers was blown up in an early British tank, survived that, then spent the rest of the war as a P.o.W. in a Silesian salt mine. He considered himself lucky, despite what it did to his health. My other grandfather served in what later became the Fleet Air Arm, saw some terrible action but also survived, then lost two of his sons in World War II. Yet he bore his losses silently. I never heard him speak a single word against anyone. War wasn’t glorious, it was brutal; building the peace was what mattered, and that was the task he and others of his generation took to heart.
I can remember my father talking about his experience at El Alamein and other battlefronts, always hoping the world would never again be plunged into total war, always sad that there had been so much loss of life on both sides, so many civilians killed, so much beauty and history destroyed. I also remember the father of a friend, who had himself been imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, rapping on the dinner table and saying that the lesson we had to learn from history was not what Nazis could do to Jews but what human beings can do to one another. I don’t think they were unique, but how I wish we heard their voices now rather than the highly selective voices of the media and popular historians!
Has our focus changed?
Are we in danger of losing the kind of historical perspective I have tried to sketch and substituting something less truthful, precisely because those voices have fallen silent? During the course of this year I have begun to feel that we are. The poppies and the silhouettes and other artworks are fine, but perhaps they change the focus of what we are supposedly commemorating and allow other elements to creep in. War as spectacle, war as the voicing of views and attitudes that have more to do with us than with the fallen, makes me uneasy. As a corollary, I would argue that this year’s commemoration of the Armistice should be the last. That does not mean that we should cease to pray or reflect on what war is and does — far from it. Nor do I think that we should abandon those who suffer even now from war and the effects of war. On the contrary, I should like to see much more help and understanding for those who suffer PTSD, whose limbs and lives have been shattered, for example. But I think we need to question more rigorously what our acts of remembrance are meant to achieve and why we surround them with so much that is alien, if that is the right word, to those who actually did the fighting and dying we commemorate.
A commentator said recently that in politics people are driven by four things, love, hope, hate and fear, and the two most powerful are hate and fear. It is true that society has a way of creating objects of hatred and fear, and I have asked myself several times whether we are simply prolonging the quarrels and tragedies of the past as a way of avoiding some unpalatable truths in the present. The British obsession with Germany and with Hitler is a case in point. We refuse to let it go and thereby show ourselves still bound, and, what is worse, perpetrate a new injustice. We do not need the memory of war to validate what we are now.We gain nothing by picking away at old wrongs; we need to learn from them instead. Perhaps we forget that we are not the heroes we celebrate, nor do we become heroes by association or by demonising some enemy, old or new. Do we use the past as a way of avoiding commitment to what the present and future ask of us?
A recommitment to service
To an earlier generation concepts like duty and service meant something. They were the motivation for conduct that might otherwise seem unfathomable. I daresay there are some who regard the stoicism with which our parents and grandparents endured privation and loss as silly, but we can think and say such things because of the sacrifices they made. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the dead to reflect more deeply on the values of duty and public service and how we measure up to them today? Quite how we do that I’m not sure because the language of public discourse seems to have lost that important element of civility. We talk of deals and our own best interest, what’s good for us in the narrowest sense, not what would make the world a better place. But it does not have to be so. We can think anew about how to serve, how to do our duty, what our duty consists in, and surely everyone would benefit.
If this should be the last Armistice Day we mark in a public way, renewing our commitment to service would be a sign that the poppies and the bugle calls were not mere sentimentality or self-indulgence but tokens of our having learned the lessons of the past, of our being ready to forge a new and better future. It would be proof that the Great War for Civilisation was not fought in vain. I pray it may be so.
Two earlier posts on Remembrance Sunday