As the phrases ‘We will remember them’ and ‘Lest we forget’ once again pour forth this November, and the red poppy becomes as ubiquitous on lapels, car bumpers and social media profiles as the leaves falling off the trees, it is perhaps worth pondering whether this whole war remembrance thing has lost any true meaning.
‘We will remember them’ feels like a phrase that we can all chime with and respect. But with a little thought one has to start asking a few questions.
What is it we are actually remembering? Are we remembering those that have died or are we remembering the suffering and hardship they faced before they perished? Are we remembering the historical circumstances around their deaths? Are we remembering those that died who we knew, every British soldier, every Commonwealth one, every Allied soldier who was on ‘our’ side, every soldier who has fought for or against ‘us’ or just every soldier who has ever died in any war? How long do we go back remembering – WW1, Battle of Agincourt, Battle of Hastings, Troy? Do we, or should we remember the civilians? Are we remembering the injured too? What about remembering the animals? For all of these deserve some degree of out attention and that is a rather long list to get through in just two minutes on a Sunday.
The trouble is that remembering is just something the vast majority of us, thankfuly, cannot do today. Remembering means that one can recall something. That means we have had some degree of experience of the episode. Yet for almost all of us we have no way of remembering as such. The war dead of WW1 and WW2 are people we will have never met. Those who subsequently died in wars after these mass slaughters have become fewer in number and, therefore consequently, we cannot relate, have direct experience of, or truly ‘remember them’. And we sure as hell cannot remember the sights or smells of the battlefield or the pain, anguish and mental or physical scarring for those who survived to tell the tale.
Instead, what is being remembered is a sanitised image of war and of the war dead. Not all those who died were ‘heroes’. Not all of them were clean living or decent chaps. They were just men. Men who either chose, or were sent, to kill or be killed. That is not to belittle them, but the way in which we now place soldiers on a pedestal does nothing in honouring the men that perished. Instead it commemorates an illusion that has been scrubbed clean of individual humanity and the brutal reality of war.
This erasing of humanity and sanitisation continues through the use of the poppy as a ‘symbol’ of the dead and ‘remembering’ the war. A poppy is a beautiful flower and, due to its prevalence in French fields in the early 20th century, is now splattered everywhere during early November to commemorate the fallen. And yet it fails to provide any semblance of communicating the true awfulness that soldiers, in any war, face. Disgusting unsanitary conditions, mutilation, murder, pain, anguish, agony, blood, bone, burnt flesh, eviscerated limbs, tortured souls. The list of horror of conflict is endless and yet we chose to ‘remember’ this by having footballers wear armbands of poppies, posting tacky poppy memes on Facebook, tying poppies onto car bumpers, staring at the Tower of London whilst draped in poppy artistic commemoration or dropping plastic poppy mockups from the roof of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps if as a society we really wanted to ‘remember’ we should replace the ubiquitous poppy with a dismembered corpse or fractured eyesocket or a burnt leg or some bleeding intestine. And instead of two minutes silences we should incorporate two minutes of agonising screaming and grown men pleading for their mothers. That would really do the job of assisting our imagination with ‘remembering’ what war is really like.
Not only do we fail to remember, we seem unable to ‘lest we forget’ either. Part of the point of not forgetting should be to learn the lessons from previous events – especially ones so awful as war and even more especially since the end of the second war to really end all wars.
Yet, here we are, decades later still failing to learn. Since 1945 Britain has sent military personnel to kill or be killed to no less than 29 different conflicts, leading to thousands more dying and untold numbers of injured and injuries on all sides. Worse still, is that over and over again, the general public support sending more people to murder or be murdered. How is that ‘lest we forget’? How can someone ‘wear a poppy with pride’ one day and then moments later support sending ‘our boys’ overseas to repeat the suffering and brutality?
Perhaps saddest of all, is that people do their remembering, not forgetting and poppy wearing all in aid of the Royal British Legion charity who serves to help former service men, women and their families after a conflict. Why, if a country and their people are so very proud of their military service personnel, do we need a charity doing the heavy lifting that should be done by government? Surely, if as a nation, we really gave a monkeys about these families who have sacrificed so much, we should be chomping at the bit to make sure that 10 Downing Street committed enough resource to rehabilitate, feed, house, retrain and reintegrate former service men and women. Instead we pop 20p into a blue box, grab a pin and a cheap plastic and paper ‘flower’ and tick our psychological ‘done our bit’ box.
I do think the British government and people should pay for decent services for these returnees and their families. I do think we should not forget the atrocity of war and therefore that means we should stop going off bombing and invading and killing fellow men and women across the globe. I do try and remember the fallen – not as some idealised heroic superhuman – but as people like you and me. And I don’t need a specific day, minute, hour or plastic badge to tell me to do so. And that is why you will never see me wearing a poppy anytime soon.