When I was at school, every year on November 11, or as close to that date as the school week would allow, we would hold a remembrance service for all those servicemen and women who lost their lives in the many, many conflicts of the twentieth century, and right up to the present day. Wreaths would be laid at the gates, by the large concrete pillars replete with the engraved names of all the local lads who fought and died. World Wars One and Two, Korea, the Faulklands… In a part of the country so relatively untouched by ‘multiculturalism’ or excessive social mobility as Dorset is, -or at least was- you could note the same surnames, time and again, throughout each major war, until you realised the progeny of those families stood next to you in the assembly, biting on fingernails as the headmaster’s speech sailed over our heads.
As younger children we were aware of a solemnity that the occasion innately seemed to warrant, though by and large the words meant nothing to us; of greater interest was the CCF, infinitely uncomfortable in their uniforms as they marched in step with the band, careful not to mess up the column when instructions were barked from Sergeant Skinner, our ex-army RE teacher. The poppies adorning our blazer lapels provided mischief for the kids with shorter attention spans. Muffled yelps of pain signalled the jabbing of pins into unsuspecting flesh.
As a sixth-former I was deemed to have a sufficiently sonorous voice to read out Wilfred Owen’s brilliant Anthem for Doomed Youth as part of the ceremony. The same poem, every year. Accompanied by the same ridiculous bugle, and the same speech. They were trotted out every November, with the same reverence as is afforded a papal address, as if these were somehow relics so fragile that to speak Owen’s lines too loudly or too often would break them; remembrance, it always feels, is only safe once a year.
That we have a day every year in which we remember the dead is a brilliant thing. The number of people, young and old, wearing poppies is similarly nothing to be scoffed at or mocked. With an issue so sensitive and deeply felt as this, it would be ill-judged to make crass statements of disapproval. Nonetheless, my overwhelming attitude towards Remembrance Day becomes angrier with each passing year. It is precisely because instead of actually remembering the dead, and why they died, we simply go through the motions each year, of poem, speech, and marching band.
We treat the poem’s words with a cold reverence that makes art out of anger, and turns an acerbic attack on the sheer madness of war into a historical artefact. If we are to truly heed Owen’s words, it will not be done by holding a two-minute silence, but by ensuring that no government of ours ever again sends people to their deaths in a war of such shameful hubris as that in Afghanistan, or of such reckless greed as that in Iraq.
It smacks of outright hypocrisy for the same regime which undertook these costly wars to emblazon its ministers’ suits with poppies, especially when there are still soldiers dying, every week, in conflicts they created. And when Nick Griffin, a man notorious for his denial of the holocaust of over six million Jews, gypsies and political dissenters, wears a red poppy on Question Time, the vacuous nature of the symbol of ‘remembrance’ –at least as far as politicians are concerned- becomes evident.
Amidst all the calls of ‘not glorifying war’ and ‘honouring those who died so that we might live free’, it seems crucial to remember those countless civilians –and they are, let us not delude ourselves, rarely counted- whose lives have been destroyed by those same wars in Aghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
In short, there is little point remembering the dead if we fail to listen to the warnings they leave us. The ‘shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’ are no artefact, nor has the ‘monstrous anger of the guns’ been silenced across the world. It is both facile and lamentable to think the generations lost to violence have been truly remembered, if during the 364 days in the year in which we hold no ceremony, we also hold no protest. There is of course a time for silent reflection, but what is the point if we do not also scrutinise, agitate, and ultimately rage on behalf of those lives that continue to be lost through the futility of war?