Some further thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

Last year, I made some observations about Remembrance Sunday - taking into consideration the experiences of several generations of my family who have served in the armed forces.

I have in recent years been particularly affected by my brother's descriptions of his time in the Balkans, and his attitudes and outlooks that stem from them. It is telling that he rejects the easy accolade of "hero" in spite of having been decorated for his services, and with it the cloying sentimentality that generally accompanies it. Soldiers are no more heroic than any other professionals providing a vital service, he believes. In fact, the highest compliment a soldier can be paid is to be considered a true professional; anything other effectively has a dehumanising effect.

I explained last year also why my mother has never bought a poppy. I have re-read the piece a year on and there is nothing I would change. But there are some additional sentiments I would like to add, because I fear Remembrance is becoming more of an obligatory public show of commitment to the military (and to the attitudes so disliked by my brother) rather than a genuine desire to reflect on the human consequences of yesterday's conflicts.

I've had some conversations recently with work colleagues, family members and on social media about the purpose and meaning of Remembrance. It is striking how, while inevitably people opt to pay their respects in whatever way suits them, the same key themes inevitably reoccur in their thinking. People who know nothing about Passchendaele, the Somme or Ypres are quite happy to say how proud they are to wear the poppy for reasons of either patriotism or a misplaced belief in the heroism of the military. There is also general reference to the need to show "respect", although that clearly does not extend to those who, for whatever reason, refuse to wear a poppy: while I will give to the Earl Haig Fund, I will not display upon my person what inevitably will be interpreted by others as evidence of my buying into the sentimental orgy of neo-imperial patriotic self-indulgence that currently passes for Remembrance.

For this, it has been suggested that I am unpatriotic (guilty as charged, patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels as Dr Samuel Johnson recognised) or that, in voicing concerns about recent military activity and sharing my brother's perspectives, I am somehow being ungracious. An enquiring mind is not a sign of discourtesy, although I suspect that a demand for everyone to unquestioningly conform to societal expectations almost certainly is. 

I've even witnessed the frankly degrading spectacle of some individuals essentially arguing about which of them has the largest poppy, seeking to demonstrate how they have outdone each other in the charitable stakes like a group of insecure teenagers pre-occupied with size. Neither this, the misplaced hero-worship, the unquestioning support for the military or raw patriotism is a befitting way to remember those who paid the ultimate price in the World Wars and more recent conflicts.

I would firstly like to address the issue of patriotism. I consider the appeal to such to be grossly disrespectful - even Edith Cavell famously admitted that "patriotism is not enough". The fact that patriotism and a sense of national (or British) identity has become so interwoven with the act of Remembrance underlines the degree to which the rhetoric and attitudes of the Daily Mail and social conservatives have been accepted by wider society. I fail to see why remembering fallen friends and ancestors, or reflecting on the horror and brutality of war, is in any sense an act of patriotism. Rather, it is a moral responsibility to remember and learn the lessons of the past.

I have also been concerned with the recent political conversation in respect to commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 2014. This discussion has been characterised by a determination to re-write history; a drive to recreate the 1914-18 war as a necessary fight for freedom. This is more than disingenuous - it is an outright lie. Remembrance requires some intellectual honesty rather than an attempt to distort history to conform to the demands of modern-day culture and a political elite who are cynically using it for their own purposes.

We all remember the lessons at school on the causes of World War I. We were told about ententes and alliances, of assassinated archdukes, of an egomaniacal Kaiser, of Schlieffen plans and innocent Belgians. None of this is inconsequential. But neither of these were reasons for the war. The simple, stark reality is that the European nations went to war because it was the easiest thing to do. Conflict was neither inevitable nor necessary. No-one thought in 1914, as they may well have done 25 years later, that they were fighting for democracy. They were swept up with the enthusiasm for a swift and glorious war which, they were told, would be over by Christmas. Most soldiers had no concept of freedom or democracy, but no doubt this is forgotten, alongside many other inconvenient historical truths.

War is not glorious, as our ancestors found out on the fields of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Somme. While it must be remembered, and indeed commemorated, it should not be glorified. Neither should it be hijacked by politicians keen to either exploit or instill a sense of national identity or, worse still, to foster a willingness to support our continuing military involvement in various parts of the world. As 91-year old Harry Smith writes in today's Guardian, "From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy."

Smith will not be wearing a poppy in the future. I cannot say I never will, but I am concerned that a self-appointed "moral majority" - in conjunction with conservative elements of the press and the cynical opportunism of politicians - can dictate to society what the poppy signifies.

As I wrote last year, I hope we can all choose to remember in whatever way we see fit. Personally, I'm taking half an hour out of my working day on Monday at 11am to reflect on the effect various wars have had on my family and indirectly on my own life - and also to respect the countless millions on all sides who either actively served or were involved in some other way in the often tragic dramas history describes simply as wars.

But, just as patriotism is not enough, neither is Remembrance. The purpose of Remembrance is of greater significance than the act itself. Of what use can it be if it doesn't cause us to strive for a better future? With that in mind, I leave the last words to Harry Smith: 

"I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn't be left to die on the battleground of modern life."


Anonymous said…

Couldn't agree more.

I detest the way politicians of all colours use the military.

Today I read about ex soldier who, upon demob, and with a broken marriage, was only able to get himself a 3 bedroomed council house. Nothing else was available. He now has a third of his benefits taken away to pay the bedroom tax. And I read too about a 19 year old blind lad, epileptic and paralyzed, with mental age of 5 being harassed by the DWP to prove that he cannot hold down a job. His father took him to Downing Street to see if Cameron would like to employ him, but was refused permission to enter and told he could be arrested. He went to parliament and asked to see Mr Duncan Smith and was told he could not and he must leave immediately.

So that's what they fought for.

I'm so glad that you and Harry Smith have said so eloquently what I feel.

Anonymous said…
Thank you for this post and the link to the similar post last year.

In your previous post you refer to your maternal grandfather and comment "Nottingham in the late 1940s and 1950s was not a good place for a foreigner to be". This seems a bit of a generalisation though, I had a grand-uncle who was also Polish and married into the (Nottingham) family just after the War. I never met him (it was all long before I was born) but my mother thought the world of him (as did the rest of the family apparently).
I would also comment on "went to war because it was the easiest thing to do", that was not really true until Russia mobilised, at which point it was inevitable. The real reason for the War was political failure, which is true for pretty much all War.
As to whether I will wear a poppy, the answer is yes, but I suppose that is because I'm ex-Forces and it is my small token of respect to those who I served with and the ones who went before. Does it bother me that some people choose not to wear a poppy, not a jot as we were there to help preserve that freedom of choice.

Chris Sharman
Andrew said…

Many thanks for your comment, which provides significant food for thought.

It is interesting that we both have Polish ancestors and of course I was speaking in general terms. There were a number of Poles in Nottingham at the time (I believe there was a Polish club); certainly my family seem to have accepted him but wider society often, so I am told, viewed him and his compatriots with some suspicion. Certainly his contribution during the war was at best not recognised and at worst forgotten.

As for the causes of the First World War - indeed they are complex, but there was no inevitability as is often suggested. By "the easiest thing" I was referring to the political failure, a failure to - in particular circumstances - not consider alternative ways forward. There was no reason why the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand should have sparked a war on that scale. The option of going to war was easier than the others and the political culture of the time saw no reason to seek alternatives. War was to be quick and glorious, or so they thought.

The real point is that, in rushing into war, little thought seems to have been given to the potential political and human ramifications. the attitudes of the key players was determined by antiquated thinking on the nature of war, rather than grand ideas of freedom and democracy.

To wear a poppy or not is not the real question. I simply hope that we can all remember in our own way what has happened in the past; the lives lost; the need for some wars and the futility of others; the political mistakes; the sacrifices made by individuals, families and communities. I have opted not to wear a poppy but, as indicated previously, I make a donation and I certainly would not look to convince anyone else of a need to commemorate Remembrance Sunday in a particular way.