Monday, 22 June 2015

The Problem of Remembrance

For the last 100 years, remembrance services have been held throughout the country to commemorate the lives of all those who have died in war. Originally held to remember only those killed in the Great War, “the war to end all wars”, after WW2 the scope of these ceremonies was extended, and in 1980 it was widened again to remember all those who have suffered or died in conflict. On the 9th of November 2014, thousands of people travelled from all over the country to attend the Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall. The Queen, amongst other royals, politicians, military leaders, veterans and soldiers, all laid wreaths at the monument in central London. In every town in England, marching bands were heard, speeches were listened to and bugles were blown to commemorate this great loss of life.

The end of the Great War left thousands of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and wives mourning the death of their loved ones. These people were overcome with grief for the loss of 888, 246 young, innocent and hopeful lives; pawns in the chess game of imperialism; cogs in the machine of war. Perhaps they struggled to come to terms with what Allan Mallinson told the Upper Sixth in his General Studies lecture: that if the allies had lost the First World War, life in Europe would not be any different. It is very possible that they felt as if their sons’, fathers’ and husbands’ lives had been wasted, causing them a vast amount of pain. If these young men were seen to have fought for an ideological cause (as in WW2) or to assure us of our freedom, then maybe their deaths would have been more justified; but sadly this was not the case. Their lives were brutally cut short by nonchalant orders of generals and politicians, the very people who now stand at the cenotaph and remember those killed.

Perhaps this feeling that their loved ones’ lives had been wasted explains why remembrance is sometimes rather insincere: so that we, as a nation, do not have to face the sad and melancholy truth. Speakers at these remembrance ceremonies refer to the “glorious and noble heroes” who “gave their lives for us so that we can live in freedom”. Do we say these things so that we can escape the fact that war is never glorious or noble? We seem to have forgotten the mud, the barbed wire, the soldiers blown to pieces, the fear, the slaughter, and the other unheroic aspects of war; all of that has been replaced by bugles, marching, and glorious memorials like the Menin Gate, referred to by Sassoon as a “sepulcher of crime”. Indeed, remembrance seems to have been disconnected from the realities of war. Only those who were alive during WW1 saw “the unheroic dead who fed the guns,” (Sassoon) and watched soldiers “die as cattle” (Owen). The fact is that a lot of these men had no idea what they were getting into: in a sense, rather than giving their lives, they had them violently taken. Do we shy away from the true aspects of war because they make us uncomfortable? Perhaps this explains the celebration of the army and the establishment that many remembrance services instigate – it is certainly a more poignant and comfortable way of remembering the dead, but is it honest?

It is the high degree of ceremony carried out at these services that somewhat undermines the point of the poppy and remembrance itself. By aestheticizing war and cloaking it with wreaths, medals and garlands, we seem to be perpetuating the original problem: this positive and glorious attitude to war. By turning death into ceremony and splendor, we are in fact glorifying war, and thus making peace all the more difficult to attain. As Harry Patch, the last WW1 Veteran (who was, incidentally, largely ignored by the media because of his anti-war stance), said: “War is organized murder, and nothing else.” If we do not see war for what it really is, we will not be afraid to wage it. By presenting war in the light that they do, remembrance services can often appear to make necessary the unnecessary, making heroic the unheroic. Wilfred Owen refers to “the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.” It is sad that those who speak at remembrance services sometimes seem to forget what Owen meant: that by glorifying war and celebrating the military we are not doing our best to remember the dead; rather we seem to be enticing the living to join them.

Remembrance has also always been inextricably linked to the Church: Reverend Cunningham began the Oundle service with the words: “We are here to worship God.” Perhaps this link between religion and war also needs to be reconsidered, particularly in the current climate: Europe was stunned by the barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices this year, purportedly done in the name of faith. In our post-Enlightenment age with only 60% of the country’s population being Christian, is it right for us to link war and remembrance with Christianity? George Bush justified going into Iraq by saying that ‘God told him to’. This association is dangerous for obvious reasons, and recalls a Crusade-like attitude towards organized slaughter. Since we are currently attempting to tackle religious extremism, perhaps now is the time to dissolve the link between religion and war.

It is because I am a pacifist, and it is because I believe that many of the wars our country has engaged in have been unnecessary, that I think our modern ideas of remembrance should be reconsidered. This is also why I wore a white poppy. Although our services may be comforting and poignant, they continue to push us further and further away from peace. Shouldn’t Remembrance Day focus less on religion, the lionization of the warrior, the glorification of the army, and the brilliancy of the establishment, and more on those who died? There is some truth in Tom Irwin’s words when he says:

“We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault ‘cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”… Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” (The History Boys)

Together, we might consider turning away from the more ceremonious aspects of Remembrance Day, replacing them with simple grief for the utter waste of life. The aspects of remembrance that are somewhat disconnected from the reality of war might be approached in a new way, so that we can continue to see war in its true light. And is there a better time to do this than now, one hundred years on? We should use remembrance, not just to remember the dead, but also to ensure that there is never cause to mourn 19.5 million needless deaths again. After all, how can we claim to remember those killed if we needlessly continue to send more soldiers to their deaths. 


  1. Brilliant, Tom. I'm interested to see that you are pacifist: a rare thing in this day and age. I really like your idea of "turning away from the more ceremonious aspects of Remembrance Day, replacing them with simple grief for the utter waste of life". Once the centenary commemorations are over I think we should definitely re-think our Remembrance ceremonies.

    BTW It was Owen, I believe, who wrote who the line about soldiers who "die as cattle". I love how he uses "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" but the irony is still missed, even today...

    1. Let's hope so :) On BBC this morning there was a debate about letting under 18s join the armed forces. We're the only country in EU and among only 19 in the world (amongst the likes of Iraq and North Korea). Not good, really, is it? And yes, you're right, "What passing bells for those who die as cattle..." Thanks for pointing that out, and please keep reading :) xxx