The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. A familiar scene unfolds before us: the ranks of grey-haired heroes and their younger comrades march to the Cenotaph, with the memories of distant Sergeant-Majors forcing their faltering limbs into line. The deep scarlet of a million poppies provides the only colour amongst the overwhelming greyness of the November skies.
Most of us will bow our heads for a pensive two minutes and place an emblematic little flower in our buttonholes. Honour, victory, sacrifice and, above all, that duty to always remember will presumably be the thoughts that fill our minds, for a moment that is. “Lest we forget”, the words on the Cenotaph read, but even as we watch the veterans march by on our television, many of us will also feel our concentration pass on to the next story, to whatever forms the next distraction in a busy modern life. Next Sunday morning, more of us than we would care to admit will scarcely notice that it is Remembrance Day.
Time is unforgiving, and now almost no one lives who can remember or remind us of the Great War’s unique terrors. We give two minutes to remember nearly a million British dead in that conflict, and a horrific additional toll of servicemen, women and civilians in the Second World War, and then walk away, back to our everyday lives. At this moment in history, perhaps more than any other, war itself has become detached from most people’s ordinary lives. It is surprisingly rare to meet any Sandhurst hopefuls in Cambridge, let alone the squaddies themselves, the majority of whom are enlisted in the poorer areas of Britain.
“We” are said to go to war as a nation, but the snipers and bombs of a hellhole like Basra can seem as remote as a video game to most of us. What is more worrying is that you could make the same conclusion regarding the politicians who send us to war. Churchill spent two years in the trenches before becoming arguably the greatest war leader in our history. The thought of those brave squaddies following Tony Blair “over the top”, even before the Iraq debacle, would be laughable if only we could forget the 171 British men and women who have been killed (at the time of writing) since the start of that campaign in March 2003.
Perhaps without the controversial comments of the broadcaster Jon Snow on “poppy fascism” last year, the whole event would have passed by without much mention in our College JCRs as well as the national press. In a world transfixed by fleeting media celebrities and the idea of the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, it almost requires an enforced closing-down of our libraries, banks, or shops to make many of us reflect at all on the lives of soldiers.
According to a recent government report, the armed forces are said to be to be “running on empty”, overstretched by the long-running operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Royal British Legion has recently launched the Broken Covenant campaign to shame ministers into improving the treatment of personnel, but it is as much public apathy that has upset many Iraq veterans. A “Victory” parade is clearly inappropriate with regard to Iraq, but the least that these veterans deserve is for us to keep our faith in Remembrance Day itself.
For the time-honoured ceremonies to retain their vitality with each passing year, critics argue that they must provide a practical function. For that, however, you need look no further than the poppy itself. The Royal British Legion spends nearly £40 million a year on supporting retired Service personnel and their dependants, and half that sum comes from the annual Poppy Appeal.
In the poppy, remembrance becomes something not abstract or momentary, not an emotion only to be summoned on cold November mornings or amidst the old war gravestones. To wear the poppy is to make a moral choice against this contemporary will to forget, for it requires the humility to accept how insignificant our own concerns might be in comparison to the hardships of soldiers past and present. It forces us to appreciate those who were tested as we have not been and probably never will be, as a result of their sacrifice.
For our generation, remembrance should not be just about Germany but about Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are more than worth some silent reflection this Sunday. We belong to the same national community as those grey-haired veterans; we share not just the same history, but the same future as well. Through wearing the poppy, we can give thanks to those who have given their lives from the Somme to the Sunni Triangle, and provide their living successors with practical aid. Perhaps we can even find some form of faith in a future for the planet in the solemn beauty of a small, red flower that we wear in our buttonholes.