06 November 2013

On Remembrance and Reminding.

As sure as Remembrance Sunday falls on the second Sunday of November each year, you can also set your calendars to the Pretend Left in the fortnight beforehand indulging in their conspicuous bouts of Remembrance rejection.

I do not, as it happens, jump quickly to criticise those who actively avoid marking the days designed to respect our war dead. Remembrance can be complex and for those genuinely conflicted, I can accept, while not agreeing with them, when, having thought about it, they come down on the side of making a personal choice not to participate.

What must be challenged however is the way in which certain individuals and groups misrepresent acts of Remembrance in order to promote their particular and fringe interpretations of the world. For them, the whole Remembrance gig is an inauthentic imposition upon an ignorant, misled proletariat. It is a fa├žade behind which the ruling classes hide their culpability for war while harvesting undeserved support for waging it and continuing their socio-economic oppression. This year and last, such approaches have been best illustrated by the student politicians of the soon-to-be-abolished (oh, the irony) University of London Union.

It is forgotten now, after 12 years of fatalities and casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, that in the mid-90s, Remembrance in this country had fallen somewhat into disrepair. The Sunday was still an event, but the two minute silence on the 11th itself was not widely marked and you could get away with appearing on TV without a poppy in your lapel. Football matches on the Remembrance weekend just kicked off, with no silence observed beforehand.

It was popular recognition of this fading of tradition that led to it being taken more seriously again. I think it was 1996 that saw the 11 November at 11 am silence return to a greater prominence. I remember because I was working in a high profile politician’s office at the time and we were convinced the Daily Mail was going to call during it to see if we would be disrespectful enough to answer.

This re-invigoration of Remembrance was not imposed by an elite or exploited to justify or sanitise ongoing wars (it was a relatively peaceful, post-Cold War, pre-9/11 age, after all). It happened because the people wanted it. This should be obvious to all those who criticise Remembrance today.

Let us imagine that history had left us war-free until last year and that Remembrance had never been necessary. Then a conflict emerged to which we sent troops. 12 months on, would not local communities want to commemorate those local men and women who had died? Would not the nation as a whole expect national commemoration? Surely we would expect, nay demand, that our nation’s leaders also attend and pay their respects. In short, we would end up with Remembrance traditions pretty much exactly the same as we have now.

Ultimately, this is the problem with contempt expressed for Remembrance: it is also contempt expressed for the millions who organise and attend the services and wear the poppies. Each one may do so for various reasons. None do so to show support for those who made the decisions to go to war. None of them are there as some sort of reinforcer of the class system. In fact, it is quite the opposite. 

For those who have served or fought, or have lost friends and family who have, or who simply want to acknowledge the sacrifice in a dignified and meaningful way, Remembrance is ours. Military, civilian, affected directly, or not. And, as such, it is good that we do so alongside the 'ruling class' or whatever you want to call them. It is about Remembrance, after all (clue's in the name, eh?). And that is inextricably linked to Reminding, as well. Reminding those political, civic, institutional and military leaders that war is, yes, in the end, about the men and women, sons and daughters, flesh and blood that get sent to fight it. It is good and civilised, therefore, that politicians get to parade and lay wreaths not so much alongside citizens, soldiers, veterans and the media at these services, but surrounded by them. They absolutely should lay wreaths and we should be able to see the look in their eyes as they do it. 

In amongst the commemoration of the heroism and sacrifice, and the pride, there is, then, a strong element of defiance and chastening of our leaders. Sure, it is not as obvious as a demonstration or a riot or a rally or a fringe meeting or a conference or a pamphlet or a blogpost. But it is there. And most of us have the intellectual ability to attend Remembrance services in both those spirits. If you do not have that capacity, then perhaps it is time you took a closer look.

This year I will be in a place more appropriate than most, thanks to my work. My second Remembrance Sunday there. And for the first, I was in uniform myself.

But for most Remembrance Sundays of the last 10 years, I have been deeply honoured to march with my army cadets (I was an adult instructor in the ACF until last month) from a unit bang in the middle of Holloway, North London, one of the poorest wards in the country. The kids involved do not need any lectures from the left on the challenges of economic inequality (nor from the right, for that matter, on the importance of individual responsibility).

Those parades to Islington Green count as some of the proudest moments of my life.  After the service at the war memorial there, the march back up to Highbury Corner goes via a particular backstreet that always has a handful of veterans, pristine in their blazers and berets, waiting to salute the parade. When the salute is returned, it is a simple but special moment. One generation saying to another, thank you for what you did. And that generation, in turn, saying thank you for remembering.

The rest of those days are spent at the MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) ‘Shellhole’ in Hackney. Young and old, military and civilian. The drinks flowing, the buffet table collapsing, and the cadets taking the veterans for a dance or two. It is touching, dignified, melancholy and, even with the likes of me present, deeply working-class.

One year, a veteran called Billy, who died a few months later, took me around the small collection of memorabilia housed in a room upstairs. With his old headdress sat proudly upon his head, he seethed over the recent abolition of his former regiment, a political decision, about which his views left little room for deference to or sanitising of our leaders. Like most of those who have served, Billy had a healthy cynicism of those who make the decisions about what the military does and even healthier respect for those, especially his comrades, who have had to carry them out. Inspiring and utterly typical.

Of course, if the various trotskyists and more immature members of my own Party who criticise Remembrance ever deigned to actually lower themselves into the communities they claim to care about – and to enjoy these moments of social solidarity which they say are so important and so missing from our modern lives – then they would recognise all this. Though I doubt they could understand it.

Which is fine. No one needs your understanding here. If you are too monotone yourself to appreciate the complexities of Remembrance, so be it. If all you see when you look out over a Remembrance service is the simple masses bowing and scraping unthinkingly to our rulers, well OK. Best you stay in bed, after all, this Sunday with the curtains drawn, and dream of your student union resolutions and of leading revolutions. But please be assured that you are not avoiding it all for the benefit of the ordinary men, women and children of this country who do take part. When you choose not to Remember with them, at least do them the honour of remembering that.

As per the rider on this blog’s front page, the author writes in a personal capacity and the views expressed are his alone. If you enjoyed this post, please consider making a small donation to the Royal British Legion. Or even if you hated it, in fact.