Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’ Matthew ch 8 v22

Over the years and decades, Remembrance Day inevitably changes because what participants remember changes. When it was first held back in 1920, everyone remembered relations, friends and comrades who had died in the Great War; until about 2010, there were still quite a lot of people who could use those two silent minutes to remember people who had mattered to them and who had died in the Second World War. But both those wars and their one-and-a-quarter million combatant deaths are rapidly ceasing to be things that people can actually ‘remember’; already in 2013 you have to be about 80 at least to have any personal memories of even the Korean footnote to the Second World War. In the seven decades since 1945, Britain has lost about 6000 service personnel in action, and never in a war that directly threatened the UK; the acute sense of personal loss occasioned by those deaths is inevitably a matter essentially of private rather than community reflection. Consequently, as a community event, Remembrance Day is in danger of becoming Armed Forces Day with hymns. But ‘remembrance’ is not only about people we can personally remember; it is also, and must increasingly be, about important things that the two world wars taught us that we must not forget.
                The British community that marked that first Remembrance Day in 1920 was in a communal state of shock, as indeed was much of Europe. Over the previous six years they had discovered to their surprise and horror what modern industrialised warfare was like. In the summer of 1914, there had been real enthusiasm for the war; young men had rushed to join up before Christmas, when it was all supposed to be over. For practical purposes, everyone had forgotten the several million Europeans who died as a result of the long French Wars a century earlier; there had been no institution to keep that memory alive. The Great War lasted over four years, and saw over 17 million killed or missing, mostly in horrific circumstances in indecisive combat. And all for very little, apparently: no great principles were at stake, and neither side had won anything remotely worth the price that had been paid in blood and treasure. The community that gathered to remember in 1920 was chastened, shocked, and grieving. They had learned things we must remember on Remembrance Day: that you have to be careful over where your blithe enthusiasms and shaky assumptions can lead you; that the bolder the initiative, the more unpredictable the outcome; that seemingly inevitable decisions can cause catastrophic damage that no-one would have wanted; that industrialised war can produce casualties on an industrial scale.
Only twenty years later, many of those same people faced with their children the possibility of another war with, first, denial, then with horror, and finally with stoicism. They knew pretty well what was in store for them; they believed that ‘the bomber will always get through’; they understood the unpredictability of war. Yet they also knew that sooner or later the totalitarian regimes that had been created by the previous war and the failed settlement that followed it would have to be confronted. They – or at least their leaders – decided that the overtly racist and openly expansionist Nazi regime had to be confronted first, and the German invasion of Poland was the line in the sand. For well over a year, they faced defeat alone – yet they soldiered on. And in the end, as it happened, they were victorious: it was Nazism and its allies that were defeated, though the Cold War with Communism stretched decades into the future. Not only that: they applied the lessons of the 1920s in their treatment of their defeated enemies, partly no doubt on the prudential grounds that allies were needed against Communism, but partly too because they knew where the stringency of the Versailles Treaty had led. In the 1950s and 60s, I grew up with Remembrance Days when people around me not only remembered their war dead, but also quietly celebrated the part they had played in the defeat of a real and terrible evil. Their war had been a war worth fighting, even a war it was worth risking losing. They too had learned things we must remember today: that some evils are so appalling and so contagious that they have to be confronted at all costs, even if that means war with all its horror, slaughter and uncertainty; that perseverance in the darkest days really is a virtue; that magnanimity in victory is prudent as well as morally attractive; that democracy is the least-worst form of government available.
                As a community, we cannot today share the shock, the loss or the pride of the years after 1920 and 1945 except in imagination. Not that the exercise of the imagination is futile; being able to empathise with the experiences and feelings of other people, even dead other people, is a characteristic of humanity. But it would be all-too-easy for that exercise in empathy to drain away into uselessly empty sentimentality, or – worse – political manipulation. We need to allow the sombre mood of Remembrance Day to affect our dispositions so that we don’t have to try very hard to apply the lessons so dearly learned through the two World Wars.
                There will no doubt come a time when we have to re-think Remembrance Day. It could be around the 2020 centenary of the first one, or maybe when the last survivors of the generation that were children in 1945 have passed away. ‘Re-think’, note: not, ‘abandon’. We will still be able to make good use of an annual event when we encourage each other to reflect with penitence, sorrow and gratitude on the causes, processes and outcomes of wars, particularly of the major wars of yesterday that created the environment in which today’s society developed. And, having looked back, to reflect on the many lessons that those upheavals ought to entrench in our minds as we deal with the issues of today and tomorrow. It is of those reflections that we will always need to say, ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them’. We must remember them. 

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