An Exercise in Forgetting
Amid the poppies, the parades, the TV programmes on military themes, the commemorative art works springing up in towns and villages across the country, Theresa May said last week that she would be laying a wreath at the graves of British soldiers in France on the centenary of the Armistice to commemorate ‘every member of the Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect what we hold so dear’.
It seems that it isn’t enough to reflect on the pity of war, the senselessness of the loss of life in the four years between 1914 and 1918, the unnumbered deaths of young conscripts and volunteers who had initially been told they would be ‘home by Christmas’. The First and Second World Wars are now often spoken about almost interchangeably as events in which people ‘died for our freedom’.
The actions and hardships of our contemporary, professional army, too, are assimilated to this ‘heroism’ and ‘sacrifice’ (while overlooking the thousands of homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated veterans who have been abandoned by the state). Afghanistan and Iraq are thrown into the conversation as though there were some basic continuity between the Somme, Dunkirk, and the destruction of Middle Eastern societies by aerial bombardment. The echoes of an anti-racist, anti-totalitarian message in the commemoration of the Second World War are drowned out by the roars of mindless patriotism.
There is no sense in which my great-uncle, who died at the Somme along with hundreds of thousands of others, gave his life for my freedom. He was cannon fodder in a needless imperial war which created fertile conditions for the rise of totalitarian regimes that killed millions, and which millions more would lay down their lives to defeat.
The centenary of the end of the First World War comes at a time of resurgent nationalism, rising hate crime and normalised racism. Those who wore a white poppy – a way to honour the dead while registering a protest against the glorification of war – noticed the increase in hostility and aggression with which the gesture was met this year. Many people without white faces did not want to take the risk. For all the talk of ‘lest we forget’ and ‘never again’, this Remembrance Day was an exercise in forgetting.