…because we have forgotten, so let’s stop kidding ourselves.
…lest we forget, lest you forget, lest I forget, lest who forgets? I am so tired of hearing this exhortation from people who aren’t fit to wipe the shoes of the millions who made the ultimate sacrifice. As the centenary of the end of WW1 starts to shrink in the rear-view mirror of our recent history, what does the phrase really mean?! Lest we forget, seems to have become no more than the most feeble of fig leaves for those who would generally prefer us not to remember, or who want to shape our collective memory about what they think we should remember. Were we honouring the elderly earlier this year when we discharged those suffering from Corona Virus from our hospitals to spread the deadly infection through entire care homes that were ill-equipped to deal with it? Our actions always speak louder than our words and the measure of any truly civilized society is how it treats its most vulnerable.
Some of you may recall the contentious line from Alan Bennett’s film The History Boys that “there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”…recently I’ve been reading about the forms of commemoration that we collectively participate in at this time of year. There seems to be a focus on the symbols, icons, and processes of remembrance. However, there does not seem to be a great deal of thought given to the behaviours befitting of remembrance or on learning from the mistakes of our past. It has always seemed slightly hypocritical to me that we let our politicians lead the commemorations whilst we simultaneously entertain their latest stupidities, malfeasance or ill-informed attempt to take our country to war and sacrifice the lives of more young men and women…perhaps we feel whatever they do is okay as long as they commemorate other’s losses once a year?
Of course, the BBCs Royal Correspondent warmly, patronisingly, smoothly, and with no evidence whatsoever, once again assures the nation that we have proved our ability to remember those who died. At least in this year’s scaled-down socially distanced ceremonies, the press didn’t get the chance to criticise someone for wearing the “wrong type of coat” at the Cenotaph. I wonder if they and the attention-seeking whores of social media might actually take the opportunity to now turn their attention to those in office and start judging them by their deeds; now that would be a novelty.
But what is it we are being reminded to remember and how are we being encouraged to commemorate? And what should we be remembering — what really are the things we should never forget? Because remembering the fallen, honouring those who died in defence of freedom and democracy is a daily activity, not an annual event. Respecting their sacrifice should not be like the Mafia’s use of the Catholic faith, doing what you want as long as you are prepared to confess how many people you have maimed this week to your priest each Sunday…I’m a devout atheist but friends assure me that that’s the deal. I don’t mean daily remembrance in the self-flagellating sense of a painful masochistic ritual; I mean that remembering the fallen should be something we reflect in our daily behaviours.
Talk is cheap and wearing a poppy for some appears to be nothing other than a publicly visible and lazily stated symbol of integrity and worth. “Oh, look at them wearing a poppy, they must be ok mustn’t they”. They may be the black-hearted child of Satan himself, intent on widening the increasingly obvious and divisive gaps in our society, whilst dishing out a daily diet of lies and half-truths to manipulate us all and maintain their grip on power, but at least they respect the dead; which is of course, exactly what they are not doing. Lest we forget has been captured by practitioners of the dark arts, public relations and spin druids who shamelessly milk it for all it is worth. Once again, acts speak louder, or for the more scriptural amongst you, by their fruit’s ye shall know them (Gospel of Luke). I said I was an atheist; I didn’t say I haven’t read the bible. We are what we do, not what we say we are or what we say we do.
By focusing on the fallen, are we allowing others to set the agenda and forgetting to think for ourselves? We should remember that the fallen only died so we might live in a better world. They did not give their lives simply to be remembered once a year; I can’t see that rallying cry from the Captain causing anyone to rush over the top of a trench. Surely the greatest lesson of any war is that there was nothing great about it, that the senseless wastes of human life entailed are largely avoidable and that decisions are most often made by people without thought of the consequences. Perhaps we should have an annual day of mourning for the truth on which we lay wreaths of remembrance for honesty and integrity. When Blair sent young men and women to die in the heat of an oil-laden desert, based on lies, was he remembering the fallen?
Unless we remember, the willingness of despots and idiots to lead us to hell and unless we remember, the willingness of the working classes to follow them at the drop of a well-worded hat, then wearing a poppy is just a copout. Ask the families of the victims of Hillsborough if the behaviour of South Yorkshires Police was a fitting tribute to the fallen? You can wear a poppy once a year for the rest of your life, you can dust them off at Easter and Christmas if you like, but just wearing a poppy means nothing in itself. The greatest tribute any of us can pay to those who gave their lives to defend democracy is to treat it as the precious treasure it is and recognise that it is not the finished article. Democracy, like many other things in life, is very much a work in progress and its survival depends on our continued and thoughtful participation in it.
I won’t quote the various scandals, old and new that have plagued parliament and our public sector over the years, the levels of cronyism, nepotism, corruption, and outright duplicity are too many and way too depressing to highlight, and they show no signs of abating. In fact, they appear to be increasing in number as the elite and those in positions of privilege, become more brazen and courageous in the post honesty environment we have allowed our hard-earned freedom to foster.
While we are at it, can we debunk the notion that selling poppies to prop up the coffers of charities is a fitting tribute to anyone? Is it not the very definition of irony that on a day of remembrance we endorse the supporting of veterans in the absence of adequate help from the nation, the same nation our veterans fought to protect? Charity makes beggars of us all. Way too many veterans are struggling with mental health, sleeping homeless and taking their own lives in record numbers for their treatment to be seen as anything other than a national disgrace. I give to charity because I am a pragmatist.
If we want to honour the dead, then we, you, I, must behave in ways befitting the sacrifice they made, and this should not be confused with compliance. There will be times in our life when we need to make trouble, good trouble. When people in positions of public trust lie, conceal and collaborate to mislead, hiding harm and wrongdoing to retain their status, we should call them out. They are dishonouring the virtue of public service and spitting on the graves of the war dead…we can moan and twine but we are not stuck in traffic, we are the traffic, and if we say and do nothing then we become part of a problem we may be tempted to think has nothing to do with us. Our continued toleration enables the perpetuation of the things we see around us that have no place in a civilized democratic and free society.
The real tribute we can all make is in our actions and behaviours and in our judgement of the actions and behaviours of those who lead our institutions. We need to constantly be answering the challenge Lloyd George gave and answer it honestly, have we made Britain a country fit for heroes?