I find that the arrival and passing of Remembrance Sunday every year causes me to reflect just a bit more each tine on the period we have lived through. The focus of Remembrance used to be ‘The Great War’ or World War 1 as we more commonly called it, but I believe I heard that the last person to have fought in WW1 battles and survived has now passed away. It finished in 1918 and in five year’s time we’ll be celebrating the centenary of that. In fact if you go to http://www.1914.org/about/ you will find that four years of ‘celebrations’ will be starting next year.
On one page of that site you will find, “Together, we are presenting a vibrant global
Programme of cultural events and activities, online resources and digital platforms
which will enable millions of people across the world to discover more about life
in the First World War.” I wonder if it will be romantically portrayed or as the
greatest human disaster in history? Or was that WW2? What is the truth?
In WW1 there were nearly 8 million deaths, nearly 22 million wounded and nearly 2
million missing. In the Second World War there were a little over 52 million civil
and military deaths. Ooops! That puts the two conflicts in perspective. To put it
further in perspective statistics tell us that 388,000 died in Britain, 500,000 from
the USA, but 2M in Japan, 6.1M in Poland, 6.9M in Germany, 10M In China and 20.6M
in the USSR! Some dispute those figures and say they are more but however you look
at it, over 50million people died at a result of the conflict we call WW2. How can
that figure make sense? It is like saying the entire population of the United Kingdom
in the 1950s was being wiped out.
Now this is just playing with figures, so let’s add some more for us Silver Surfers.
If you are 70 today (2013), you were 2 at the end of WW2. If you are 75 today, you
were 7 then, if you are 85 today you were 17 then. Combatants in that conflict have
got to be at least 85 today (give or take a year). We are rapidly running out of
people who genuinely remember it or were part of it (you’ve probably got to be early
70’s to have memories of it.)
Remembrance is a good thing, it is said, for two main reasons: first, so that we
will not forget the horrors of war and, second, so that we will honour those who
fought in order that we might have the world we have today.
According to one internet quote, “Since the end of the Second World War in 1945 there
have been some 250 major wars in which over 50 million people have been killed, tens
of millions made homeless, and countless millions injured and bereaved.” As a nation
we have been involved in conflicts in the Falklands (1982), the Gulf (1990-1991),
in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Such is the world we live in and which impact our lives.
So how does one go about ‘remembering’? Well I guess there are a few of us who do
still have our own memories of war. More of us will have memories of parents, uncles
and aunts who were combatants in one way of another. With the awareness of ‘post
traumatic stress syndrome’, observed in those who have returned from more recent
conflicts, we perhaps wonder how many of those of our families who returned and survived
WW2 were actually exhibiting signs of PTSS? Can anyone go through that without that
sort of effect? Tales abound of those returning from the conflict, utterly different
from what they were before it all. Well, for some of us, as we look back and wonder
about our childhoods, maybe this understanding about what our parents did, went through
and how they came out different, may explain things that happened to us, and the
nature of our upbringing.
Until more recently I’m not sure Hollywood films did us any favours. The enormity
of ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘The Battle of Britain’ leave many feeling it was just one
big adventure. Whole streams of films glorified war and probably it was the advent
of a certain Private Ryan that brought reality. I have tried to imagine the awfulness
of the killing fields of WW1 but it just makes me angry, probably a defence mechanism
to avoid tears. Crass stupidity are words that come to mind.
Issac Asimov is attributed with the quote, "war is the last resortof the incompetent",
but perhaps that is too simplistic. Perhaps that was more true of the First World
War, but Neville Chamberlain was deemed incompetent for trying to naively avoid it,
Hitler didn’t give us that choice. It is easy to pontificate from a distance but
serious question marks still hang over so many of these conflicts. Will long-term
history show that our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan really changed much (I did
say long-term) or will there be other world forces that will bring changes for the
better - or worse? Whether or not our involvement in Iraq will be deemed good or
bad, the record still stands that we went into it with little or no plan of what
to do after it, and with little or no understanding of the people groups and motivating
forces involved in it all.
So here we are in this post-modern world where doubt and questions hang in the air,
but there are even bigger issues that lay doubt to ongoing ‘remembrance’. Post-modern
cynicism questions whether ongoing ‘remembrance’ is simply a tool of the Establishment
to enable manipulation of public opinion to bring about whatever other conflicts
some people in power think are good ideas. While politicians and institutional leaders
of all brands have lost credibility over the past ten years, the willingness to go
along with traditional beliefs in this area, diminishes.
But then we have a younger generation whose world is so staggeringly different from
that of seventy years ago, that talk of ‘the Wars’ is almost given less credibility
than super-heroes who are all the vogue. Those of our generation may struggle to
understand it, but it is so. So girl guides, boy scouts and the Brigades turn out
and march on Remembrance Sunday, but for them it is just ‘an experience’ that is
led by their elders. Whether they would march when they are ten years older is doubtful.
As my generation eventually will pass away (we may still have some time to go!),
the generation of children whose parents participated in the last major conflict,
will ‘remembrance’ become more linked simply with an interest in history? In recent
years there has been a resurgence in nostalgia as many question the world that we
have today and feel dissatisfied with it.
‘Vintage’ is a word that has taken on new meaning but I would guess that vintage,
retro etc. etc., used in the younger generations, are associated with ‘nice feelings’
and these exclude Private Ryan type recollections of yesterday, i.e. modern cool
culture is also cosy culture. Perhaps this is another reason why we need ‘remembrance’,
to hold a balance of reality in life – life isn’t always nice and cosy and sometimes
(as in the past) when bad men prevail good men have to take up arms and that is when
the weeping starts.
If we haven’t lived through it, we probably know someone who has but, as we noted
above, they are growing fewer by the day. If we didn’t go through it we have nevertheless
perhaps been influenced in our lives by those who did, and at times that influence
was not good, for war and its effects are not good. This is an area of our lives
where there are no clever answers, just lots of questions about necessary evils,
but it is part of the hidden background that makes us who we are, whether we liked
it or not.