Tomorrow is Armistice Day. The Queen of England and the United Kingdom – Elizabeth II – will lay a wreath on the monument in central London dedicated to all the British and Commonwealth men and women who lost their lives in two world wars and subsequent conflicts. Politicians will genuflect. Bands will play big music, regiments of soldiers will parade. It will all be on radio and TV. Millions of us will pin a poppy to our lapel or blouse. And we will all remember.
What? What will we be remembering? I’m going to say something which is likely to be unpopular. But I think that in the time of Brexit and Donald Trump it needs saying more than ever. What exactly will we all be remembering? And having remembered, then what?
Will we be remembering the men and women of the enemy armed forces – the Germans, the Italians etc. – who were also persuaded and coerced by dictators and politicians into giving up their lives and limbs – ‘in the service of their country’? Their families too were ripped asunder, their children too were rendered fatherless. Will we be remembering those awful lines of Wilfred Owen, the man from Shropshire, who served in the First World War, who won the Military Cross and who was killed in Northern France one week before the Armistice was signed?
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
And if there are those who don’t know the English for the ‘old lie’ – it’s a quote from the Greek poet Horace – “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” I don’t think that needs further comment.
Were it possible to ask any of those who were put through the hell of that and subsequent wars, how best should later generations remember them, I suspect the answer would be, “Make sure, for God’s sake, you don’t ever do this again.”
Then look at us now. The anger, the cruelty, the xenophobia and the hate crimes are on the rise in Europe and the US. A resurgence of fascism, once regarded as a ludicrous proposition, is no longer ludicrous. As a race we seem to have forgotten. Except at this time in November when we remember. Anyone can. Pin a poppy on your jacket. Say a prayer on Armistice Day. It takes no time and no effort. And can be forgotten till next November.
Doing something about our own individual selves however, so that we don’t forget, so that we really do remember and learn the lesson those men and women who sacrificed their lives would have us learn is not easy. But if we want to survive as a species – and we’ve no reason to think we’re indispensable to the universe – that is what we have to do.
FINALLY – one of my Meditations which I include in this blog from time to time –
“The problems of our world stem not so much from our failure to act as though we – its peoples – are one, as from our failure to recognize that we – its peoples – are one.
We have, for millennia, accorded life-or-death importance to superficial differences which are of no more significance in the wider sweep of things than the mosquito on the back of the elephant. Thus we resist one of the most profound and uplifting truths of ourselves as human beings.
The time has come to put an end to this. Look into your brother’s eye, your sister’s eye and see there yourself.”