Should you ever feel inclined to compile a list of Tony Blair’s most embarrassing moments be sure to include his meeting with the last few British survivors of World War I, which happened to take place on the eve of the Iraq invasion. Blair probably wasn’t expecting a man who was well over a hundred to tell him not to take the country into another futile war.
Harry Patch was thus the oldest person to embarrass the ex-PM. He was also the last British survivor of the first world war battlefields when he died earlier this year at the magnificent age of 111. Like millions of others, Patch had been conscripted to fight in a war that was of no benefit to working class people on either side. As he put it himself, the first world war simply “wasn’t worth it.”
As this is the first November since Patch’s death, this year’s Remembrance Day was different from every previous one. For the first time, not a single British veteran of World War I was alive to participate. Patch’s name will undoubtedly be invoked many times during this period. Yet his memory sits rather uneasily with conventional remembrance events – because Patch described Remembrance Day as “just show business.”
Many people feel a similar unease or ambiguity around this time of year. Almost everybody, whatever their views on war or politics, wants to remember the dead. Remembrance is vital in a healthy society that wishes to recognise the past and learn for the future. However, like many others, I feel profoundly uncomfortable about participating in remembrance events that can seem to be more about endorsing war than learning from it and recognising its realities.
These questions are explored in Reimagining Remembrance, a report published last week by the think tank Ekklesia. It explores the history of remembrance before offering recommendations for making Remembrance Day more meaningful, more inclusive and more truthful.
The report suggests that remembrance can never be a value-free act. How we remember, who we remember and why we remember says a great deal about our society today and what we want it to look like in the future.
Consider, for example, the references to soldiers “dying for our freedom.” This reflects the common belief that certain wars were necessary to defeat tyranny. However can anyone say in conscience that all British soldiers died for freedom? What about futile wars or those fought for imperial ends? What about soldiers killed by “friendly fire?” Or those who died while committing atrocities?
Sincerity demands truth, so sincere remembrance requires us to recognise reality. We insult the dead if we ignore the real circumstances of their deaths. We must stop pretending that all soldiers died for freedom. We must recognise that some died in vain. But we should always remember them. Indeed we should go further and remember all those affected by war.
The majority of those killed in war are civilians and yet the British Legion insists that remembrance is for the armed forces alone. As a socialist and as a Christian I cannot accept that one person’s life is worth less than another’s.
It’s time to remember civilians, conscientious objectors and “deserters.” As Harry Patch himself suggested, we should remember those who fought against British troops as well as those who fought alongside them.
We need to remember the non-violent peace-builders who have put themselves in danger to resolve conflict without violence. And crucially we need to recognise that many of those wounded, traumatised or bereaved by war are still alive and should be able to expect support from society and the state.
Ekklesia, like many who question the conventional approach to remembrance, has been accused of insulting the dead. It is saddening that some choose to make such a knee-jerk and scandalously inaccurate allegation against those that they disagree with.
I am at times tempted to think that it would be easier to keep quiet. Yet I know that there are many, many people who truly want to participate in remembrance without being co-opted into endorsing war. We insult the dead if we speak of remembering them while doing nothing to prevent the deaths of others.
Patch, like millions who fought alongside and against him, recognised the frequent futility of warfare and hoped for a world in which conflicts were resolved non-violently. If we really want to remember him, let’s do so in a way he would have appreciated – with truth, commitment and a determination to work for peace.
Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. The report Reimagining Remembrance can be read at www.ekklesia.co.uk
This article was first published in the Morning Star newspaper on 8th November 2009.
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This post was written by Symon Hill