Commemoration in 2020, on the seventy fifth anniversary of the Armistice, is as important as ever. With each passing moment, memories – even of the second World War with its sights, sounds, terrors and triumphs – fade with the testimonies of those who were there. As they yield to the irreversible process of aging, even the youngest men and women who fought are now into their 90s and new generations are born into the ‘freedom’ for which millions lost their lives.
In an era of newly created existential anxieties, caused by the unprecedented events of 2020, this remembrance holds up a mirror to our present core values, our current beliefs. We must be sensitive in how we remember an event which most of us did not experience first hand. Naturally, many view it through an extremely narrow lens of personal perception and priority – of lost jobs, of instability, of personal fear, of death, of child hunger, of increasing homelessness, of poverty and suffering heightened by Covid.
History can be a source of guidance, it can inspire and motivate us but it can also divide us and fuel the hatred which perpetuates its recurrence, unless we become more aware of the dangers of selective reflection. If reflection is biased, partisan, it violates the principles of justice and leads us towards the most horrific of histories repeating.
I was not there in either world war. I cannot remember what I personally did not witness. I remember history lessons which indoctrinated me with the glory of war and which, back then, encouraged the boys in my class to celebrate military courage and which became an occasion for some pride in chauvinism. I remember Churchill being presented to me, unquestionably, as the hero of the nation.
I remember poetry lessons which expressed an idealism about war that contrasted strongly with the realism which I have since encountered. I did not learn then that Rupert Brooke, who wrote the rousing, ‘If I should die, think only this of me/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever, England,’ died from sepsis as a result of a mosquito bite. His beautiful and sublime poetry ensures he is revered long after his death, but is it for his literary genius or his gung-ho attitude to a war in which he did not fight? His obituary in ‘The Times’ was written by Winston Churchill, one in which Churchill stated, “A voice had become audible, a note had been struck, more true, more thrilling, more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth in arms engaged in this present war, than any other more able to express their thoughts of self-surrender, and with a power to carry comfort to those who watch them so intently from afar…joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed…all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.” I was so troubled by this gung-ho and dismissive attitude to a young man’s life and death.
I was not introduced to a wider perspective. I did not appreciate the more rounded history of the poet, of his insecurities – that he was neither joyous nor fearless – that he was troubled and confused. I wondered if he would have remained so gung-ho if he had served in the same way as Sassoon or Owen. I dare not question it; it would have been deemed disrespectful. I was not introduced to the history which revealed Churchill’s views on the use of gas in the Middle East and in India. I could recite by heart his oratory calling for where ‘we shall fight them’ but I knew not of this quote:
“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes… it would spread a lively terror.”
I was taught not to respect and to love but to fear and to uphold an unquestioned version of history. It is more important now, than ever, to ensure that freedom does not allow remembrance to degenerate into a blood curdling, wall-splattering, mindless social media campaign to promote war, partisan politics and aggression as a means of settling international, civil or personal dispute. I wear my poppy with a knowledge that it does not symbolise my preference for militarism or the use of force but it respects all those who were sent to war by the leaders of our country, whether they wanted to fight or not, and who never returned. They were mostly like me – ordinary people, from ordinary backgrounds. In reality, they had no say in how the powers-that-be decided to dispose of their lives. But I know now that they were extraordinary and that they are worth more than a passing thought from me. Wearing a poppy is a statement of my conviction to recall the past horrors, which took their lives, in such a way as to ensure that future horrors can be avoided.
No-one can ‘remember’ what was not personally witnessed and so children, whose current reality is more than a little scary, need not to be indoctrinated with an indoctrinated view. They need an opportunity for their questions to be answered. Wearing the poppy does not imply my support for those whose failures and illusions were often the cause of conflicts in which innocents died or were maimed. It is the opportunity for me to reaffirm core human values and moral sensitivity.
One of the most confusing messages about remembrance that I’ve ever heard was conveyed to a group of students in an assembly. I am certain that the intention was coming from a place of respect, and from a heart full of love – for the students, for their colleagues, for their ancestors who had been directly involved in fighting in both world wars, for humanity. But it was misguided.
There were more than one thousand students gathered, aged from eleven to eighteen. They were required to enter in silent respect, to sit in silent respect, to leave in silent respect. There was no opportunity to ask questions and the assembly was delivered in a didactic manner from a sage on the stage. They were required to listen, there was no checking that they had processed the information. The lead was delivering a message that was replicated from the assemblies that they had attended in their own childhoods. One message was very loud and clear – in this sixth generation since the war, we should remember them.
The other message was also clear – we should actively seek peace and aim for it across the world. We should be so grateful that these young men and women gave their lives so that we could be free. We should respect diversity, we should increase tolerance, we must eradicate the hatred and fear that led to these horrific wars, we should spread the word of love and be so grateful for our freedom that we would never be in the position again to have to shed blood to protect world peace.
And then came the message that was so confusing. We should want peace so badly that we should be prepared to fight for it, as did our ancestors. How can we expect an eleven year old, even an eighteen year old to process the very confusing messages that we convey? When we engage in violence, when we use fighting talk, we cannot expect peace. The rage-reaction cycle can only lead to greater conflict. We cannot fight for peace to experience peace.
What we can do is, through remembrance, contribute resources towards nurturing humanity, we can work to eradicate poverty, we can aid compassionate, empathetic and sustainable development. We can write history forward so that by ‘remembering’ we take steps greater steps for humanity.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.