As always at this time of year, I find myself conflicted. It is right and appropriate that we should remember those who fought in our wars, and commemorate their loss. In my family the men who went to war – my father’s father was on the Western Front, my mother’s father was in the Royal Navy in both world wars and my father was in the RAF in the last war – all came home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sit quietly and remember them.
At the same time, there is stuff which bothers me about this time of year. I was born fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, and it seems to me that Remembrance has become more and more nationalistic with the passing of the years. When I was a boy, it was understood that we bought poppies not only to mark our remembrance but to support the work of the Royal British Legion in helping ex-servicemen. That role has become more important over the past fifty years or so, as the Legion continues to take on duties which should really be fulfilled by the State.
It seems to me, though, that these days Remembrance has become an expression of Englishness. Today I have a sense that if you don’t wear a poppy, you somehow become a target of opprobrium. I’m sure we can all remember instances of television newsreaders being taken to task for not wearing one onscreen. It’s become an obligation, not a choice, and that bothers me.
I’m also uncomfortable with the connection between God and War. This is a generalised discomfort, not isolated to the Remembrance services, but I find it difficult to reconcile the two things. Instead of being a wholly secular celebration of our fallen, religion plays a substantial part. The English God is not a kind God, nor is it a God of the People. It is a General, a landowner. The same God I was taught about in infants’ school, the one who loved lambs and little children, sent men over the top on The Somme. The English God is a member of the Ruling Class. That bothers me.
It also seems to me that, while we spend a week or so every year remembering the members of our Armed Forces, we forget about them the rest of the time. We don’t have the greatest record of looking after our servicepeople once they reenter civilian life. And we’re not alone in that; the US has a less than shining record of looking after their veterans. Too many former soldiers, sailors, airmen fall through the net or can’t get the help they need because of government cuts or simply fall through the net and disappear. While politicians solemnly lay wreaths at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, and read out the names of the more recent dead at Prime Minister’s Questions, former servicepeople like David Clapson fall victim to a benefits system which has begun to devour the people it was meant to help. We owe them more than that.
We have something here called the Military Covenant, which is basically a recognition of the obligations of the nation to its armed forces, but it seems to me that it’s often quietly forgotten.
This year, of course, marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, and the commemorations have been much more high profile – the field of ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London, for example. Hopefully, in four years’ time, there will be similar commemorations to mark the end of The War To End All Wars.
I suppose my final reservation about Remembrance is when we stop remembering. We don’t, after all, remember the fallen of Agincourt, and some might say that we owe them every bit as much of a debt of gratitude. The First World War has now, very nearly, passed out of living memory. As it recedes into history – and for most children today it must seem as distant as the Battle of Hastings did to me as a boy – will we celebrate it less and less? Or will we carry on, our Remembrance fuelled by the dead of more recent wars and wars yet to come?