Saturday, November 13, 2004

In Flanders Fields...

Tomorrow will be the day that the country commemmorates those who have fallen defending our nation and our freedoms. For the past few weeks now, people up and down the country will have been wearing their poppy as an act of remembrance for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. Would we be as willing to fight for that as those our age were sixty and ninety years ago? Somehow I doubt it, but it is still important to have a sense of where we are coming from. The two World Wars were the formative events of society as we know it; both in a realpolitik and a cultural sense. It may sound particularly morbid, but one of the things I find most fascinating about WWI is the change in attitudes it brought about with regards to death. Previously the burial and the sanctity of the body was tremendously important; yet once countless soldiers had fallen, never to be retrieved, the spirit became the defining factor of someone's memory.

The battlefields of the First World War are some of the saddest places in the world - made particularly poignant because the slaughter itself was not just horrific, but in so many ways totally senseless. Whilst it is interested to compare the attitudes of different nationalities to the way that they treat their dead and the after-effects of the war (compare, for example, the Langemarck German cemetery with the French Ossuary at Douamont Ridge), the one factor that unites them all is the sense of sadness. I make a point of buying my poppy as soon as I see them on sale; usually I end up buying several.

And yet, i have been thinking recently about the strong limitations of Remembrance Day. It pleased me greatly when, talking to a friend last night, he told me how many of his foreign friends had expressed an interest in what the poppy actually signified. It irritates me greatly when pompous idiots llike Yasmin Alibhai-Brown write about how they buy poppies but do not display them for fear of being associated with war - an act of self-importance and disrespect to those who gave their lives. And I feel there should be a far more public demonstration of observing the two-minute silence at the time of the Armistice Agreement on November 11th itself.

What remains essential, however, is that we do not only think of the war dead come November. It goes without saying that I am not calling for a reduction in the commemmoration service, but we have to be careful about focusing all our attention on a particular date or time. The freedoms that were secured for us by those we remember are around the whole time, and should never be forgotten. I blogged earlier in the week about the importance of some particular dates and how public perceptions of them were crucial to understanding the community identity that is the key motor of history.

However, the public fanfare given to the Poppy Appeal every year, and the observing of the two minute silence become less worthwhile unless accompanied by true understanding of what those sacrifices really mean to us. Otherwise the silence becomes a sign more of our guilt than our appreciation of what these men really mean to us - in a similar manner to the way that proliferation of tributary silences for popular figures becomes less a measure of our sadness at their passing than a semi-obligatory act. Instead, we should take the time to visit the Battlefields; take the time to read fully about the true significance of the war and how much human life was wasted for now-invalidated ideals. For unless we use the memory of the war to inspire us throughout the year, we are not truly respecting those who fell for us. So much was lost then for us to gain today. The least we can do is remember it the whole year round.