Like many, I find the act of remembrance, observed each year, to be hugely significant. This is not simply as a matter of respect to the fallen, although I suppose on one level it is. More importantly, collective remembrance is vital if the legacy of the two World Wars and other conflicts that have followed is to be retained in the public consciousness. We cannot afford to forget or to fail to learn the lessons of history. And so inasmuch as the key theme of Remembrance Sunday is...well, remembrance, I feel it is the most appropriate focal point for reflecting on recent history, the nature of war, the human costs and even expressions of grief.
Remembrance observations also bring society and communities together in a unique and valuable way. Also, through them we see humanity at its best and most respectful.
That said, I have some reservations as to what remembrance Sunday has become. Yesterday, Sunderland player James McClean refused to wear a shirt embroidered with a poppy. The outrage machine has already gone into overdrive, with his stance receiving almost universal criticism. This surely is not in the understanding spirit that supposedly characterises Remembrance Day. As a liberal, I am naturally inclined to respect an individual’s personal choice in such matters, whatever my own. More important, however, is the need for some appreciation of why McClean chose to make such a personal statement.
McClean was born and raised in Northern Ireland, in the city of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on one’s political/religious persuasions). He will have grown up in a divided Ulster, immersed in a culture that is understandably suspicious and even resentful of the British Army’s involvement in Northern Ireland. I would argue, without looking to create political controversy, that such resentments were not only reasonable in the highly-charged political context of the 1980s and 1990s, but were in fact also well-placed. I say that without pride, and as someone whose father actively served in Northern Ireland at the time of Bloody Sunday.
The point of course being that what Remembrance Sunday means to James McClean is perhaps not what it means to others. In fact, what it means to me is probably far removed from what it represents to many of my friends. McClean clearly associates the poppy with one of the least glorious chapters in our military history, and deserves better than the populist derision currently being directed towards him.
Another of my friends today used facebook to rail against “war...fuelled by greed, arrogance and hatred, and by a lack of justice and freedom.” He also criticised “poppy mania” and what he described as the descent into “hero worship”. He will not, he declared, wear a poppy. The responses were as you might have expected. But he’s remembering in his own way, perhaps a little more honestly than the rest of us. Surely this is a part of the role Remembrance Sunday should play: facilitating a debate about the nature of war, the role of our armed forces and their duties in a changing world.
My mum has never worn a poppy. I’ll tell you why. Her dad was a Polish Jew and had fought in the RAF during World War II. He must have been either good or lucky because he survived 1940. After the war, not only were he and his compatriots denied the recognition they fully merited (such recognition, it was said, would have offended dear Uncle Joe Stalin) but quickly found they had no place in this “land fit for heroes”. Someone who had played as full a role in the defeat of Nazism as was arguably possible found himself an outcast in the society in which he now lived. He made efforts to integrate, changing his name to Smith and effectively denying his identity. To no avail though; Nottingham in the late 1940s and 1950s was not a good place for a foreigner to be.
How can the mantra “we will not forget them” have any credibility, my mum would argue, when such a person is cast aside on the superficial matter of his origins? Of course she will choose to remember in whatever way she sees fit, remembering the injustices, the sacrifices and the trauma experienced by him and various other serving family members down the generations. But she has persistently refused to buy into the “poppy mania” my friend describes, or the culture underpinning it.
My family tree, as you may have guessed, bears the names of several war veterans. My maternal grandfather served in the RAF for virtually the duration of World War 2. My paternal grandfather was involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. My father served in Northern Ireland, while my brother was a member of the UN peace-keeping forces in the Balkans during the 1990s. There are others too.
Interestingly, I never grew up to view any of these people as heroes. Not only did I not see them as such; they would have hated the very idea. Some of them did not ask to serve in the first instance. My maternal grandfather most certainly did make such a choice, but in doing so he left behind his family to probable fates at the hands of the Nazis.
Like me, I suspect they’d take issue with what Remembrance Sunday seems to have become: a near glorification of the military, a mawkish and sentimental expression of hero-worship, an airbrushed interpretation of history intertwined with arrogant patriotism. And that’s before mentioning that the Haig Fund (to give the Poppy Appeal its correct title) was established in memory of a man responsible for a waste of human life on an almost unimaginable scale.
I have no time for the adulation, the patriotism, the offensive glorification of the military and sickly-sweet hero worship. In regards the latter, I have always found this presentation of our troops as heroes to be not only inaccurate but patronising – insulting even. My brother, decorated for his services, agrees. Those serving in the forces are professionals doing a valuable job, no more heroic than the psychiatric nurse, the police officer, the fire fighter, the care assistant or the elderly man who single-handedly provides for his Alzheimers-suffering wife.
Perhaps we could show some real respect to our armed forces by recognising this fact and referring to them as the professionals they are, rather than resorting to mawkish hero-worship. That is more befitting of their role and the nature of their work. Certainly, my brother would have much preferred to have been called a professional by those who understood the nature of his duties than receive the lazy epithet “hero” from Daily Mail readers.
Finally, when Remembrance Sunday is routinely hijacked by politicians, who cynically use public support for the military for their own ends, it is plainly disrespectful. I am always appalled when politicians play these types of games, but to do so on Remembrance Sunday is in particularly poor taste. I’m sure you know who I’m referring to.
As I’ve said, however, Remembrance Day means different things to different people. For some, it is clearly little more than a tool via which to sustain public support for the military, and therefore British involvement in current and future conflicts. For me it provides an opportunity to reflect - not only on the fallen and their families, but the futility of war, the malign influences of greed, self-interest and tribalism that invariably cause it, the huge human costs (especially in Iraq and Afghanistan), the wasted lives, the lessons of history and even the various (often unsung) achievements of those in uniform. More personally, I consider how the actions of others serving have shaped the person I am today as well as the society in which I live.
Real remembrance allows for tolerance and diversity in the way people choose to remember. Remembrance is an action, not an event, and should not be reduced to an exercise in social conformity in the form of an on-demand public outpouring of grief and adulation. And so when those like James McClean, whose memories are perhaps more real and whose scars run deeper, choose to remember in a different way we should not only be accepting of it, but actively welcome it. Certainly, no-one should have a moral monopoly on the meaning of Remembrance Sunday.
In World War II the spectre of Nazism with its dogma of exclusivism and intolerance was defeated. Surely a fitting way to remember this is by ensuring that our Remembrance observations are as inclusive, tolerant and embracing as possible?