Saturday, 14 November 2009

When Remembrance of the Past becomes Militarism for the Future

This was something that struck me then I saw it picked up by 'The Guardian' editorial last Saturday too.  I rarely agree with the editorials even if I do find journalists in that newspaper I share a viewpoint with.  However, it did seem to capture the unease that has been growing within me around the regimentation of remembrance.  Having been someone who in his youth argued for more remembrance, I am bitter now that I have come to feel that recent changes have taken things too far and it now needs reining in.

In the UK up until the mid-1990s remembrance was associated almost exclusively with Remembrance Sunday, the nearest Sunday to 11th November.  There would be sales of poppies by the British Legion and especially children and the elderly would buy them and the funds would go to help the wounded and their families and families who had lost husbands/fathers in war.  Of course, the iconography of the poppy is strongly related with the First World War, but though there is often a direct association with that conflict Remembrance Sunday is supposed to be about all conflicts.  Apparently since 1945 Britain has had deaths of service personnel in conflict every year except 1968 and I certainly know that growing up in the 1970s reports of deaths and maimings of soldiers in Northern Ireland were as regular as they are now from Afghanistan.  A friend of mine lost her brother in the Falklands conflict in 1982 too.  Despite the way we portray Britain, it is a very militaristic country, we have constantly been involved in conflicts in a way many neighbouring states have not, certainly since the end of the colonial empires in the 1960s-70s, now 30-40 years ago.  Much of this involvement I have disagreed with, but this does not stop me admiring those people who fight and are wounded or die and to raise funds for them, I feel is vital.

As someone always involved in history, in the 1970s and 1980s I felt too much was being forgotten about what earlier generations had experienced.  I still think this is the case especially when I hear that 'oh, the Holocaust, it was so long ago' despite the fact that survivors are still with us.  In that period aside from perhaps buying a poppy only those with a direct connection with the military or those who were regular church attenders tended to reflect much about what was being marked, even if just about the First World War, let alone any subsequent wars.  I felt we should move to what happens in France, where even now you can still see the marks of wars in so many parts of the country, but particularly the North which I have spent most time in.  From the Belgian border deep into Normandy you walk in the foosteps of millions of soldiers and almost every town is one that features in history books.  My view was that we should have Remembrance Day, i.e. have a bank holiday on 11th November no matter which day of the week that fell and have all the shops closed and all kinds of memorial activities, secular as well as religious.  People forget that many Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews died fighting for the British Army in the First World War and subsequent conflicts.  Britain still has Gurkha forces.  Of course, some people felt that remembrance was an element of the past and anticipated that in time it would fade as an activity.  Apparently the government considered dropping it after the Second World War.  However, to a large extent remembrance has always been driven by the public, from the building of the Cenotaph to local war memorials and events, it has been a public force of will not necessarily something officials have been able to control.

Having been driving through rural Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset in the past couple of weeks I constantly see memorials in even the tiniest villages.  War has impacted on all locations in Britain.  For me remembrance is about remembering that the people who die in wars are generally not heroes, they are simply ordinary people sent to fight by people who are not at risk.  This was brought home sharply to me in the early 1990s when I was in the Imperial War Museum, a large section of which is dedicated to the First World War and where they now have a database of war memorials.  A woman, a little younger than me, this was 1992 so I would have been 25, said, standing among all the materials about the First World War, 'I don't really know what all the fuss is about the First World War; none of my family suffered in it'.  I was rather stunned by that, especially as she was there with a school party and was apparently training to be a history teacher!  My mother's father and uncle both fought in that war and survived into the 1980s, due to a generational slip, my father's grandfather also fought in that war and died in the 1920s as a result of gas poisoning he had suffered during the war.  They experienced horrors, but I do not engage in remembrance for the specific personal connection, but more broadly because I mourn that young people were sent often to be slaughtered in futile actions.  I asked her what was the lowest rank that her ancestors in the war had been, and she answered colonel.  One of her living relatives was a serving brigadier.  In that instant I felt as much distance between her (though socially I have climbed far higher than my grandparents and great-grandparents) and me as I feel my ancestors would have done. 

My father's grandfather had served in the Boer War and had been decorated.  He was called up in 1914 and served an 18-month tour of duty.  He was a sergeant but was demoted twice for hitting silly officers commanding suicidal missions.  He was lucky not to have been executed.  He ended the war back as sergeant because all those above him were killed.  He was big man, a prime target, so you wonder if he was trying to stay alive.  However, I think that given his proven bravery, he was not afraid of facing the bullets but what he, as a very experienced soldier, was not going to let amateurs from a social class that had not seen hardship (40% of volunteers in 1914 were turned away on the grounds they were malnourished) and were willing to toss away lives.  To some degree, you might feel wrongly, this has left a rather class-orientated angle for me regarding remembrance.  I see it as a reminder to the elites that they should value life and not waste it as they too often do.  People from the upper classes do die in wars too and the elites of 1914 were stripped of many of their best and brightest as much as the working and middle classes were.  My referencing social class aspects in my remembrance is probably a bad step on my behalf because it politicises remembrance and that is at the root of the current difficulties.

What began to happen in the mid-1990s was partly what I had hoped for in the preceding decades.  Whilst shops did not close on 11th November, suddenly, primarily driven by tabloid newspapers there was a two-minute silence (up from one minute) and not only on Remembrance Sunday but on 11th November too.  I remember the first time when travelling on an underground train and people were invited to be silent at 11 o'clock; a couple of years later I was in a shop.  I used the minutes to reflect on people I knew had died in the First World War whose records I had seen at the National Archives (only 40% remain as the rest were burnt as a result of bombing in the Second World War).  This seemed the right way: remembrance now was impacting on everyday lives for the bulk of the population. 

Fifteen or so years on, things may now beginning to go too far.  Remembrance is now being very mixed up in political issues.  I commented earlier in the year about how the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin had been asked not to wear a poppy outside of the remembrance period, because he seemed to be trying to associate it with his racist views.  Military leaders attacked his used of particular imagery because they are aware he does not see many British service people as legitimate, despite the fact that the British military has always had a range of ethnicities and religions.  This trend of the BNP would be easier to contain if there was not a parallel pressure from the tabloid media.  I am not accusing them of backing the BNP but they certainly are seeking the regimentation of remembrance.  There have been demands that footballers should wear embroidered poppies on their kits.  A lot of this stems from an attitude that a 'real' man backs the military and is in line with other things such as a Veterans' Day.  These trends seek to move away from a sombre, sober remembrance of conflict to something more celebratory of the military.  The rise of the charity Help for Heroes, is not a bad thing in itself and they do good work, but that more exclamatory title as opposed to the calmer, British Legion, unfortunately is being hijacked by those who feel that we should all be compelled to celebrate the military.  It is interesting the shift in the British Legion's poppy campaign this year to using more of the current photographs that Help for Heroes does.

The issue is particularly poignant at present because every week British soldiers are dying.  Things are reducing in Iraq but Afghanistan is dragging on as a British soldier from the 1840s or a Soviet one from the 1980s could have told you it would.  The Retreat from Kabul in 1842 may be seen as a shameful action on the British Army's part but it did prevent thousands of men dying there in subsequent years.  The mixing up of remembrance with celebration of the current military now is almost becoming, if you do not support the current battles then somehow you are shaming the previous dead.  This is a difficult leverage to contest and it was particularly notable that in pictures of parliament not a single MP was not wearing a poppy and absolutely everyone on television wears one.  It has been a uniform that everyone in the public eye must wear or face being challenged that they do not care about Britain's military; not even that they do not remember previous sacrifices. It has been great for the British Legion who have sold record numbers of poppies and the funds are useful for those soldiers coming back wounded from Britain's various current wars, but to some degree, the whole thing is becoming regimented even mechanised.

Politicians feel pressured by the media as they know that any one of them who has no poppy will be ridiculed or severely attacked in the press.  Any complaints around militarism and certainly initiatives like the white poppy movement which arose in the 1980s are now excluded from debate.  As was noted in 'The Guardian' civilian casualties of war are ignored entirely in this process, partly, I imagine because of the resentment against asylum seekers who are blamed for so much, but of course, in many cases are fleeing from the wars that the tabloids want to celebrate.

Militarism now dominates the media; it is a baseline assumption for so much of what we are presented.  Of course, while I was hoping for for greater attention to remembrance, the right-wing has been more successful in using remembrance to leverage participation in militaristic attitudes.  Some generals are seeking to separate out these different approaches, but these are subtle things that the bulk of the population does not have the time or inclination to work on.  Alongside the assumption that immigration is wrong, that racism is acceptable, that the EU (or insert whichever international body you favour) only does Britain harm, that the death penalty is naturally right, we now have the assumption that militarism is good, it makes Britain strong and anyone who does not support that line is weak and a traitor.  Such characteristics are seen in all authoritarian and Fascist states.

Remembrance has been taken by the popular media and those people who run it to promote militarism and this trend has stepped up a gear in 2009.  This creates fertile ground for extremism.  It also betrays the bulk of the people who have died fighting for Britain.  The bulk of them never went to war to defend an ideal of a militarised Britain, they went because they had to or at least because they felt it made their families safer.  Many of the people who died fighting for Britain were not white and were not Christian but they still died fighting for a country that seems increasingly likely to deny their right to be acknowledged as Britons.  We need vigorous steps to depoliticise remembrance, to bring militarism out into the open and keep it away from the proper remembering of those who sacrificed so much.  Otherwise this trend will simply create a country eager for a larger military and even more battles across the world which will lead to even more mutilated and dead service people and civilians.

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