I have felt conflicted for some time about Remembrance Sunday. On the one hand, I think it is important to provide support for those affected by war, and to acknowledge those who lay down their lives and health in defence of their country, both now and in the past. I think there are few families who don’t have stories about those who fought and died or were permanently affected in the two World Wars. The scope was too vast for it to be otherwise.
Of my own family, my great-grandfather fought in the army and spent most of his adult life in an asylum as a result, suffering with shell shock. One of his older brothers never came home from the Somme. On the other side of the family, another great-grandfather was a naval engineer, and sailed on the HMS Ark Royal. We have photographs he took of its sinking. I grew up hearing stories of my grandmother’s seven uncles who went to fight and all came home (although not unscarred), and the woman who lived down the street never getting her only son back.
My grandfathers were both too young to see active service in the Second World War, but one was a parachutist and the other joined the Air Force – until he was injured and invalided out. At this time of year I remember them, and many others. I am aware of the sacrifice made by so many, for the sake of those at home.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder how well we as a nation still do remember. The message was “lest we forget”, and yet this morning, I sat and watched young children returning home from a parade, decked in poppies and cheerfully waving their Union Jack flags. Do they remember? Do they even know why the soldiers march? Why poppies are found on almost every breast at this time of year – a splash of bright red which will never be so dark as the blood which was spilt. Spilt by those who never got a chance to grow old. By soldiers who returned home, and tried to find a life for themselves in a world which could not comprehend what they had seen. By innocent civilians, caught in wars which touched every corner of this world. Wars whose after-effects lingered and festered, and laid the foundation for so many of our modern conflicts.
Lest We Forget, millions were sent to their deaths by generals who seldom left the safety of their bunkers.
Lest We Forget, innocent people were mown down by invading armies, or sent to die in horrific concentration camps, far from home and their loved ones.
Lest We Forget, soldiers returned home –still return home – with their minds and bodies torn apart by war, to a country which glorifies the dead while bypassing the living.
Lest We Forget, those soldiers, so long ago, did not all choose to lay down their lives. Enlistment left them with little or no choice. Their country loved them less than they loved it back.
Lest We Forget, celebration is not remembrance. Pomp and circumstance is not remembrance.
Lest We Forget, we fall silent to remember those who will never speak again. To remember the countless lives which ended too soon.
This is not the day to fly flags and remember that we were the “good guys”. This is not a day for patriotism and glory. This is a day – and the eleventh is a day – to remember the death, and the injury, and the lives which ended or were irreversibly changed in the name of war. To remember the lives which are ending even as we speak, and the lives which will never again be the same.
As I type, in the wake of the Remembrance Parade, I am surrounded by people with poppies and flags. Flags. Whatever your view about the poppy in modern times, there is no denying that at least it began life as a symbol of remembrance. But our flag did not. Our flag – any flag – has no right to be waved right now. I don’t want to celebrate the continuation of conflicts people died to bring an end to. I don’t want to celebrate national pride and jingoism. Especially not today.