Thursday, November 10, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 3

The last few days, I have been receiving the odd search engine hit for "Captain Annand VC". Back in December, I blogged about this remarkable man, the first man to win the Victoria Cross in the Second World War. I won't repeat the details of his actions, for you can follow the link, except to say that many believed that his actions on one single day could have won him the VC three times over.

My meeting with him left a lasting impression on me. I suppose one of the strange things about meeting a man like him is that you barely talk about the actions for which he was so famous; indeed, the actions for which he ultimately had been invited to the event I was at. What I do remember about Capt Annand, though, very clearly, was how humble, how normal a man he was. He was far more interested in finding out about us than about reflecting in his own achievements.

Thinking now about the purpose of remembrance, it is striking how so many ordinary people could carry out extraordinary actions. Not just the actions of Capt Annand, one of 1355 recipients of the VC (where it is said you need to stand a 90% chance of death, nowadays, in your action, to be awarded one), but the actions of many thousands of men volunteering or pressed into action, which defended the freedoms that we do still value today. I don't think now, that if you were to give me a gun, I could shoot any man dead with it. But war places unimaginable mental and physical pressures on all combatants; who knows how anyone can react?

This, then, must be one of the key aspects of remembrance. Not just the dehuman aspects of war, but the human sacrifices that have to be made. Just last night I dreamt about former schoolmates who I hadn't thought about for several years; nor did I have any good reason to. To imagine what it must be like for a Burmese POW to have those memories come back to him thirty, forty, fifty years later, unprompted, scarcely bears thinking about. To imagine your best friend lying in a pool of blood in front of you; but you can't stop to grieve or think about it for fear of joining him.

Such slaughter on an individual seems almost totally senseless - which is why, ultimately, to make any sense of war whatsoever it has to be seen in impersonal, sweeping terms. And it is very important we think of how war impacts on a community. When we think of remembrance, however, we also honour those who gave their lives for their country - who did what they thought was their duty, whether for right or wrong. And we need to think of the figures that are recognisable - the grieving parents, the young widowed mother, the amputee. There is a personal level of suffering involved in war that can never go away, can never be wished away, cannot just drift silently into the past.

The one hope that Capt Annand did express to me when I met him was that people continued to take an interest in military history. I think that what we need to remember is much broader than that. We've got to remember the social and cultural impact war has on the individual, and the individual components of social networks, too.