Forgetting to remember

What with being put under partial house arrest for the second time this year, I must confess to having missed the Remembrance Day commemorations. The Sunday came and went without much notice, and even the 11th passed unmarked in my household.

This time of year is traditionally dominated by discussion over red poppies, in which rightwing newspapers bemoan a lack of poppy wearing and their leftwing rivals bemoan the bemoaning, or dispute the cause of the bemoaning, or worry that the whole thing is too jingoistic anyway.

I am no peacenik, having helped edit Janes Defence Weekly for a time and thinking that armed forces are worth having for any decent-sized country. To my mind the West’s recent experience with peace is ultimately guaranteed by American weapons, and this will continue to be true as China challenges the United States.

Yet the merits of armed deterrence aside, the relevance of Remembrance Day seems diminished to me with every passing year. The last veterans of the First World War have been dead for nearly a decade, and only a handful survive from the Second World War, which ended 75 years ago.

Many a commemoration has promised that those who served and were killed in war – ‘fallen’, to use the euphemism – will never be forgotten. The reality is that conflicts must fade from view as those who experienced them die and fresh tragedies occupy our minds.

For the time being the Second World War looms as the year zero of Western civilisation, bringing down various European empires and ushering in the dominance of the US and Russia along with their respective blocs. Even the rise of the European Union and the collapse of the Soviet Union has not unpicked this fundamental tension on the continent.

In the British case the worthiness of opposing Nazism remains a rare point of near-consensus, disputed only by Nazis and Anglophobes. Handily the Second World War also provides good covering fire for its predecessor, in which those aforementioned European empires sent a generation of young men to their deaths to no real end, besides laying the groundwork for the next conflict.

The problem is that the grasp of Remembrance Day has extended to encompass conflicts that were not so obviously necessary as the Second World War. No consensus exists on the justice of the Falklands War, which some see as a response to external aggression and others as a needless defence of Britain’s imperial past. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are similarly mired.

Commemoration will continue with or without my participation. But I find it hard to see how the conflicts that defined the first half of the 20th century will look to a child in 2050. My dad was born in the shadow of the Second World War, but it will seem a distant darkness to any child of mine.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact

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