Saturday, 10 November 2018

Some (further) thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

Image result for remembrance poppies white red

This week Remembrance has been in the news - and quite rightly so. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, it is right and fitting that we hear stories of courage, comradeship, tragedy and sacrifice. 

But there have been other stories, too. Footballer James McClean has received all kinds of threats and unpleasant messages owing to his refusal to wear a poppy.  Former editor of The Times, Simon Jenkins, has provoked controversy by suggesting that perhaps it is time for Remembrance Sunday, as we understand it, to be discontinued. And RAF veteran Harry Smith has been targeted for tweeting: "I no longer wear the poppy because the most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts".  

Six years ago - yes, six years ago - I wrote about what Remembrance means to me after James McClean (yes, the same one) received abuse for his decision not to wear a poppy. I have not changed my mind since and clearly neither has he, but I would like to revisit this for the Armistice centenary. As a graduate in 20th Century History, I naturally feel very strongly about Remembrance. I also feel very strongly that much that passes for Remembrance is, in fact, intellectually dishonest and at times disrespectful.

Let me firstly deal with the cases of the individuals mentioned above. James McClean has made it clear for the last six years that he doesn't wear a poppy and has repeatedly given his reasons. I understand why he feels the way he does. He does not ask to be agreed with, simply understood. The refusal of many to do this shows an unfortunate disrespect for those who opt out of the traditional symbol for Remembrance, even if their reasons for doing so are to remember in a more personal and intellectually honest way. To me that is unacceptable. "To wear or not to wear?" is a question that has nothing to with remembrance itself, and everything to do with culture, tradition and convention. McClean's gesture does not challenge the significant of remembrance; far from it. What it does is questions the need for particular symbols.

Simon Jenkins is a thoughtful person, albeit one I often disagree with. He doesn't need defending because he's perfectly capable of defending himself. Like McClean, Jenkins has been saying the same kinds of things for many years - last year, he argued in The Guardian that "we should not be remembering, but forgetting. Almost all the conflicts in the world are caused by too much remembering: refreshing religious divisions, tribal feuds, border conflicts, humiliations and expulsions...The task is not to ignore some past event but to view it in proportion, to find some compromise between present and past. Throughout history, societies that do this have tended to succeed and move forward. Those that cannot forget, that wander the stony paths of their past and drink at the rancid well of grievance, are those that decay from within. Britain should write the wars of the 20th century into history books...No more remembrance days." I do not have to agree with that to respect and understand the viewpoint. After all, what is Remembrance without exploring ways of pursuing peace?  Like McClean, he is remembering honestly and with an enquiring mind. He wants remembrance to be forward-looking and focused on preventing divisions and future misunderstandings. 

His final proposal might go too far for some of us but it does not merit the ridiculous overreactions from the likes of Piers Morgan and the Daily Mail, wilfully misrepresenting his words to mould themselves in the image of righteous protectors of Respect and Tradition. It's disingenuous - Morgan and the Daily Mail are odd kinds of moral guardians.

And then we come to Harry Leslie Smith - an RAF veteran who fought in World War II and continues to fight against fascism...on, erm, twitter. Again, he is more than capable of defending himself. But what is surprising is that the social media Outrage Machine doesn't for a minute stop to think that an octogenarian who actually fought the Nazis might have well-considered reasons for his stance. I would imagine Remembrance Sunday means a lot more to Harry, who has lost countless colleagues over the years and for whom the pain of war is not just a distant fact but a personal memory, than it does the average person who buys a poppy...or the latest 22-carot limited edition golden poppy brooch, wristband, watch, jumper, commemorative tie and so on.

What worries me about the reactions to each of these people's statements is the failure to realise that every one of them is taking Remembrance seriously - very seriously. These aren't people who are dismissing Remembrance as unnecessary, or who are disrespecting veterans. On the contrary - each is struggling with elements of how we, as a society, "do" Remembrance. 

Simon Jenkins is right in one key respect. Much of what we consider to be remembrance is "artificial". In this expression of Remembrance, the (red) Poppy is a central, super-significant focal point for our grief. All else pales into insignificance. The Outrage Machine, seemingly unable to look beyond a choice not to wear a poppy, goes into overdrive. The repeated defences are then wilfully misconstrued. This is not Remembrance. I do not need a poppy of any colour to remember. Neither do people in most other countries in the world. Remembrance is not the wearing of poppies, and neither is the wearing of a poppy in itself Remembrance.

The poppy is a symbol - nothing more, nothing less. A powerful one, I concede. But honest Remembrance accepts that people can and do think differently. It respects that difference. It does not tell other people how to remember. It is certainly artificial when the focus is on symbols rather than understanding the past.

The red poppy itself is a symbol of the Royal British Legion. That poppy represents fallen military personnel. It does not represent civilians, or animals, or soldiers who did not die in the field, or even servicemen from opposing armies. Just "our glorious dead". This year, the Legion's motto is "every one remembered". The intention is no doubt good, but how is that possible? Isn't that a bit hypocritical from an organisation that refuses to commemorate civilian efforts in war, and that considers the white poppy "offensive"? War, after all, is seldom about soldiers and is never caused by them. Don't we need an Act of Remembrance that goes beyond the narrow focus on fallen military personnel and remembers all victims? The Iraq veteran with PTSD? The old lady who never knew her dad, because he was killed at El-Alamein? The widows, the injured survivors, the likes of the merchant navy and people who worked on the railways in WWII, without whom the war could never have been won? The civilian ships torpedoed by German U-boats? And so on... 

Honest Remembrance will remember all people affected by war. It does not make judgements according to uniform or nationality. The Royal British Legion may well own the red poppy, but it does not own Remembrance.

Remembering all affected by war is what the Cambridge University Students' union recently voted to do - with a predictable reaction from those eager to misrepresent their position. Remembrance should be as inclusive as possible, recognising that people remember in deeply personal ways and allowing them the freedom to do so. Remembrance that demands conformity is not Remembrance. 

This Sunday I will be leading two Remembrance services - one for my church in the morning and one later for the LGBT community. Honest Remembrance is always challenging, which is why I've decided to place the emphasis on the personal. Members of the congregation have given me names and photographs of their loved ones to be featured in a short film. Others have brought items for a Remembrance table. Some have written poems. Two veterans (aged 40 and 89) will speak about their own experiences and what Remembrance means to them. Some will wear poppies, some will not. We will remember different people, who have touched our lives in various ways - both civilian and military. And, as we're a church that has people of Polish and German descent among its members, Remembrance will not stop at national boundaries. We will not exclude anyone, whether British, French, German, Polish, American, Russian, Italian - not only because we're an inclusive kind of church, but because Remembrance cannot be selective.

On December 25th 1914, German and British troops put aside their weapons for a day. People wearing uniforms of opposing "sides" played football and sang songs together. 104 years later, it's still virtually impossible for Allied and Axis veterans to "officially" remember together. While it is welcome that for the first time ever the German president (Frank-Walter Steinmeier) will lay a wreath at the cenotaph,
imagine the response if someone in German uniform turned up to pay his respects at many of our public remembrance commemorations tomorrow? What sort of Remembrance is that? Maybe Simon Jenkins has a point after all. 

Remembrance is a deeply important act, and personally speaking I am very concerned with how we remember. I'm not Simon Jenkins - I'm not advocating axing Remembrance Sunday. What I am advocating is for Remembrance to be more open, less prescriptive and less judgemental. Let's not forget that Remembrance is usually, if not always, a very personal thing - after all, we can only remember what we know or have experienced. Let's strip away the jingoism, nationalism and triumphalism and find a way of including all of us...especially James McClean.

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