Posted: 12th November, 2013. Topics:
I want to talk about the schools’ Remembrance Service and the Remembrance service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall held yesterday. I have to confess that I look forward to them. I love the words and the music and the sense of history and the seriousness and the poppies and the trumpet and the hymns. They area good, moving, dignified and entirely fitting occasions. As we listened to the names of the School’s war dead, it is right that we should feel moved and, yes, proud. The awe-inspiring list, and Jenny laying the wreath of poppies provide a moving and impressive theatre.
But, is that all it is? Moving theatre?
And do we walk away from the service and later take off our poppies and forget it and move on for another year? So that the war memorials sink back into invisibility again, as do the wars, unless they crop up as part of a history or English course? I have heard it said by some that it is time to forget the wars and look forward and put all that horror behind us. And even from those of us who think that it is right that we meet and remember, isn’t that what we, effectively do? Isn’t that what we do when we leave the theatre of the service and leave the sad performance behind? Put it behind us and forget it?
Well if that’s true of course, then there is a very real danger that this service becomes nothing more than a wallowing in sentiment. And there is a very real danger that those who fought and suffered and died, fought and suffered and died in vain. And that is my question for us all today. Was it all in vain? And do we, really, actively and effectively remember?
A year ago I was in London and I had an experience similar to one that has happened to me on several occasions on Remembrance weekend. At about six o’clock on the busy street, with the shopping crowds thronging, I noticed that among the usual bustle of youngish, casually dressed people, moving noisily past the shops were some people who looked out of place and rather puzzled. These were elderly men, generally in blazers and ties, some with berets on, some with medals. And all with poppies, unlike the vast majority of the people surging past them. These were men, (and there were women there too of course) in the centre of London for the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday Night and, probably, due to march past the Cenotaph at the Sunday Remembrance Service in Whitehall. What did they make of this London, I thought. What did they make of the people around them and the evidence of modern life? And when they remembered their friends who have been dead all these years, having died in our defence, did they wonder at times late on Saturday if it is was worth it? If we are worth it? Or do they think that we have already forgotten?
For me that is the question of the November days of Remembrance. And it is one that needs to be with us much more often than once a year. Are we worthy? And have we learned anything from it all?
One of the most depressing observations I have come across for a long time is one of the German philosopher Hegel, who said that the greatest lesson of history is that human beings learn nothing from history.
And I wonder if that is true. In an age where violence is a continually repeated form of entertainment on our televisions I wonder if we have learned anything.
At a time when the majority of people in many democracies don’t vote, was the battle against fascism a waste? At a time when prison populations are rising, and when the materialistic scramble seems to become more and more manic, and when our media are obsessed with sordid and voyeuristic nonsense, could the old soldiers reasonably wonder if it was worth it?
I think it was. It is too easy to be cynical. I hope we have learned from history. And I hope that the tolerance and liberalism of our society can be seen as a product of our history and of the Second World War. And if the rights and wrongs of the first war are rather more difficult to distinguish one can at least say that the social and cultural changes that came in its wake, though they came at a ghastly price, were profound and in many ways good ones. And after all the horror of the trenches, which our historians were visiting and reflecting on last week, do we at least understand rather better the effects on individuals of mechanized warfare and have we at least rid ourselves of triumphalist notions of the glory of war? I hope so and believe so.
But we are part of the ongoing test. Because if our attitudes and behaviour to each other and the world we are together shaping and will shape in the future, do not live up to the sacrifices of our predecessors then we will have every reason to be ashamed of ourselves.
So when we remove our Poppies and throw them in the bin, let us not throw away their memory.
We must remember them.Continue »