This is our truth, tell us yours
It’s Remembrance Sunday in the UK, and I stood at our local cenotaph, and remembered. Not all the people I remembered are listed on the memorial; I have to go elsewhere to find memorials to our Spanish Civil War veterans, or the miners and merchant seamen who also gave.
Given that I am something of a leftie, and the left’s traditional antipathy to the British military, it’s sometimes hard to explain why I chose to do some of my remembering in public, at the appointed time and place, surrounded by part-time soldiers and self important status obsessed civic dignitaries. It’s not as if I am forgetful, or need to be reminded that my grandfather came from the Western Front a changed man, albeit with a knowledge of battlefield medicine and triage that made him a useful man in the mine rescue team in those days before an NHS ambulance service. I don’t actually need anyone to tell me what happened in the wars of the twentieth century, and I don’t believe the dead look down and feel disappointed that the turnout isn’t as good as it once was.
Remembrance Sunday to me is like one of those awkward family funerals that come in two varieties. The first is the funeral of someone you didn’t like, but whom the people you love would wish to be commemorated. You stand there in your best suit and black tie, not to remember the dead but to show that you love those who live and grieve. The second is the funeral of someone you loved but which will attract people you despise. You stand there in your best suit and black tie, not just to remember the dead but to stake a claim over their memory, to make sure that people knew they belonged to you too.
Never mind the fly blown words that would make any sane man spew, the pious nonsense from people who do not recognise Dulce et Decorum Est as a criticism of war or who wish to claim that their conception of war is a moral standpoint, not just a political fetish. The soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in two world wars were not tin soldiers, immaculate and regimented but ordinary men and women who did their best. Orwell wrote about some of his Spanish comrades
For where is Manuel Gonzalez,
And where is Pedro Aguilar,
And where is Ramon Fenellosa?
The earthworms know where they are.
Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie;
But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.
Orwell wrote superbly in the Lion and the Unicorn and elsewhere about the disorderly, drunken, chaotic subculture of the British army – he even printed the lyrics of one of my favourite drinking songs, the riotously rude ‘I don’t want to join the army’. He touched on a reality that I understood as I stood bare headed at the cenotaph today, that all the marching bands and ludicrous ceremonial could not take possession of the conscript army of two world wars and make out of their sacrifices an endorsement of the narrow world view of the modern day Colonel Blimps who would have us believe that every man who dies in conflict is a hero who believes in the high moral purpose of his death.
By going, and standing quietly at the back with my thoughts and a few friends around me, I re-possessed the dead in all their diversity, so that someone, at least, will remember all of them, as we should always remember the dead, for better or for worse, but with honesty and faithfulness.