Remembrance of the right things

I didn’t feel it was appropriate to post this yesterday, but I do feel the need to say it.

The Sunday nearest to 11th November, we have Remembrance Day. After the First World War many people did not want victory celebrations. Too many had lost family members and friends. Two minutes silence to remember the dead, a solemn procession, the laying of wreaths – these were the appropriate ways to remember appalling losses. One of the best known phrases of this period is “Never again!”.

Last year, in 2014, we had the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. There were countless events remembering it. Each year, Remembrance Day seems to become a bigger thing. Everyone posts a memory, poppy or photo on Facebook. Businesses post tributes, not wanting to be left out or shamed. Wearing a poppy is increasingly seen as a duty, not a choice. The right-wing press noted that Jeremy Corbyn “didn’t bow low enough” at the Cenotaph, and the left-wing social media commentators responded by noting that Jeremy Corbyn had skipped the VIP lunch in favour of talking to veterans.

In short, Remembrance Day seems to be less about remembering the fallen, and more about social status, being seen to conform. And the remembrances seem to confer status on simply being a soldier, to glamorize war.

There’s a very, very fine line here. Someone who has fought for their country, who has been wounded or died for their country deserves our respect and remembrance. But I would prefer that we had well-funded veterans’ hospitals, adequate mental health care for veterans, rather than insist everyone wears a poppy on one day a year. I know that the poppy sales raise money for the Haig Fund, but is it really better to give your child just 10p to buy a poppy than to donate £5 quietly to Help for Heroes. Have you done your duty by wearing the poppy if you gave the minimum you could? Notoriously, a picture of David Cameron wearing a poppy was released this week, and it turned out that the poppy was photoshopped on. Is that really a meaningful act of remembrance?

And, let us not forget, the remembrance of a soldier’s death does not mean that he or she died in a good cause. That is not within the soldier’s control. He, or she, does not choose the war they fight in: that is the politician’s role. We may send our soldiers to defend their country, or we may send our soldiers to defend the interests of the already-wealthy. If we are sending our soldiers to die unnecessarily can we ever make that better by remembering their deaths?

I can’t, in honesty, participate any more in a ritual that seems to be used to promote war rather than remember the dead. I cannot, in our current rituals, see any remembrance of the spirit of “Never again!” remaining. I see more of “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori”.

Each November, I will give a donation – as large as I can – to Help For Heroes. But I will not wear a poppy.

Footnote: There’s a very good article on the background to Remembrance Day on History Extra here

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