Sunday, 29 December 2013

Just how should we remember World War I?

The village of Ousby in Cumbria sits upon the school bus route which I took many times when I was living in the Eden Valley near Penrith. What I was unaware of was that in times past Ousby was one of the luckiest communities in England. You won't find a War Memorial in the village for those who perished in the 1914-1918 conflict. You might think 'my goodness, what a scandal how can they not care about their war dead?!' But that's just it - there are no war dead. For Ousby is one of only 53 'Thankful villages' in all Britain, those parishes that lost no lives in the First World War. 53. And that's it. They're all in England and Wales with none in Scotland. Further more only 13 of these thankful villages (or parishes) lost no lives in the Second World War either and Ousby isn't among them.

It goes to show the very scale of the casualty list from World War One. Nearly a million people from the UK died as a result of the conflict, the vast majority being soldiers and this accounted for 2% of the population. And next year the outbreak of this disastrous event, which 'lost a generation', will be 100 years ago. We should mark the events of World War One but not use them as an excuse to celebrate.

I acknowledge that Britain's involvement in the Second World War was unavoidable - the only alternative was to stand back and let the Nazis take over Europe. The victory in 1945 was more a victory against fascism not against Germany. Our involvement in the 1914-18 conflict on the other hand was much more dubious and how it ended was far from glorious. And it could have been avoided altogether just on our part alone. For much of the war it was a stalemate fought in the ugliest of conditions in the trenches. The resulting Treaty of Versailles did no favours either. Vindictively, French president Georges Clemenceau brushing aside advice from his American counterpart, Woodrow Wilson, made Germany sign a treaty where they not only had to hand back land they took from France but also pay unaffordable reparations and accept the infamous War Guilt Clause. The consequence of this? Years and years of bitter resentment in Germany, the failed Weimar Republic which ended up in the mess of hyper-inflation following a desperate measure to pay back the Allies and finally the rise of the Nazis. So even victory ultimately bred disaster.

I did wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day last month. Not because I had to but because I wished to and have always worn one for remembrance. However, come next November I will take to wearing a white poppy. It was too late for this year even a week before this year's armistice commemorations when I finally became aware of the significance of the white poppy campaign through the No Glory in War Campaign. I don't want anyone to feel it's wrong to wear either colour of poppy if they feel its for remembrance. However, I have to agree with the criticism many people have about the main War Commemorations - they are as it seems too much of an excuse for military pageantry and are intended to make the statement "their sacrifice was for the service of this great nation, for king and country. We must honour them." But they appear more to be honouring their military prowess than the lives of their servicemen which at heart are the lives of ordinary people like you and I.

There is a balance to be struck between honouring the people who fought in armed conflicts and declaring their lives lost to be 'for the sake of our nation'. Let me start with that last point: why just the sake of our nation and not all humanity? As I mentioned earlier the Second World War was as much about defending humanity and democracy from the evil of fascism as it was about defending Great Britain from a foreign power. Had the Nazis won that would have not only meant an invasion of Britain but years of unimaginable persecution throughout Europe not least in my father's homeland of Norway which suffered the real brunt of German occupation. So of course we needed the courageous men of the allied forces to ensure it never came to that. But we equally have to thank the men and women in other areas of the war effort whose commitment also meant the difference between victory and defeat. Like the code-breakers in Bletchley Park. And the Women's Land Army. The ultimate desire though in striving for victory in the Second World War was striving for peace.

But while Britain had to fight the war we simply call "the War" the same cannot be said of more recent conflicts. Iraq and Afghanistan (as they are simply known) are wars that seem to be fought for little more than Western feelings of superiority. Yet we are compelled to regard the wars as being fought for 'our national security'. But how? There also seems to be an obligation to call the veterans fighting in these wars "heroes". But why not also our nurses, doctors, fire-fighters, samaritans and so on who all could mean the difference between life and death here at home. I feel it is for the people of Afghanistan and all these other places where our soldiers have fought to judge for themselves if they are worthy of being called 'heroes' or otherwise and opinions even within the civilian communities are likely to be divided on that one.

So I recognise the effort the armed forces put in to what they do and no doubt there are many occasions when they save lives often at considerable danger to themselves. I commend their bravery when that is the case. But they are not serving me by being out in Afghanistan, they are serving the Afghan people (if that is what the Afghan people there feel they are doing) and they are serving the politicians who sent them there. I don't want the armed forces to be out there fighting what is largely felt to be an unwinnable war. They are other people's heroes not mine. However, I can't blame them for wanting to join the armed forces in the first place since the main purpose of the armed forces is defence. But Afghanistan isn't about defence it's about foreign interests. The British Armed Forces being sent to war in foreign countries are being sent there by the very politicians we elect. That said I do feel that as citizens we have a right to demand the people being sent out in our name, if they are going to be sent at all, are provided for sufficiently both on the frontline with all the necessary equipment and back here at home with adequate housing, financial security and of course moral support. And it is politicians who have the responsibility to deliver these things, it is them who decided they should go out and fight. But it is also our right to expect that they are not being sent out to wars they shouldn't be fighting.

We're told to wear the red poppy 'with pride'. I couldn't disagree more. If we do wear a poppy it should be nothing to do with pride but rather everything to do with being humble in remembrance. Unfortunately wearing a red poppy is now regarded by many as a matter of compulsion and is often used like a seasonal fashion accessory. If anyone saw Strictly Come Dancing on Remembrance weekend you'll remember the poppies being used in the lighting like it was an appropriate theme. How it seems the war dead are trivialised! Next year I will choose personally to remember the First World War with a white poppy so I can say 'lets remember those who died but lets honour their memories by striving to ensure this never happens again.' Having worn a red poppy all these years I'll adopt the white poppy with the intention of using the anniversary to help turn a new chapter and campaign for peace. The white poppy remembers not just the soldiers who fought in conflicts but also all those who suffered as a result of the conflict. I may accompany that with a small cut-out picture of a war cat representing the animals who have died in armed conflicts. Although there is the purple poppy for this purpose I personally can make an emotional connection with the image of a cat, having had one that sadly died this year after 14 years as a pet. Another gesture I may consider on Armistice Day is to wear no jewellery. It's a less overt statement but there is a feeling of something missing when you don't wear the jewellery you're used to wearing. To not wear it is something of a shedding of personal image.

As for the national events themselves. Somehow we have to mark the anniversaries but how do we do so humbly? Well this is where education matters. Each significant anniversary will mean a more substantial focus on the gruesome details than might otherwise have been the case. It will be a chance then to learn about what happened during these events and subsequently to understand about the immorality of war and how future wars can and should be avoided. Lets see the anniversary of the World War One be used to educate a new generation to understand the responsibility they have as future leaders of humanity. Therefore, the coverage of past events should not seek to avoid any uncomfortable detail and should expose the bare facts. People should get together to share memories first-hand or second-hand of their ancestors to understand about the generation that was lost and the huge tragedy in this loss. And somebody should stand at every war memorial decrying the war that wasted so many lives including the ones on the memorial beside him or her.

The main event itself (if there is to be such a thing) should be a memorial service held in a cathedral other than Westminster Abbey (for that's too much a symbol of British nationalism). St Paul's Cathedral, a survivor of the Blitz would be one suggestion for somewhere in London or in another part of the country Coventry Cathedral which was bombed during the Second World War. And all the world leaders of nations that took part should visit a site on the western front where they should gather to hear people's testimonies of the First World War and give people the chance to stand up and publicly lambast politicians past and present for allowing pointless wars to happen. It should then be followed by a fifteen minute silence.

There is no glory in war but there is satisfaction in peace. Lets strive for the latter.

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