This year more than ever, there have been a spate of media articles about people who are giving up or are disillusioned with Remembrance. Some are written by vaccuous young commentators who wouldn’t know conflict if it came up on the Bakerloo line and smacked them around the head. People so young that even the Falklands War was before they were born. Others, more poignantly, are written by former servicemen – those for whom the day was set up to honour in the first place. Whatever their particular take on why they will no longer publicly mark it, this is why I will.
I don’t like war. There is nothing glorious about war. Not for anyone who’s actually having to fight the wretched thing. It might be glorious for the incumbent leader who gets to crow their victory to the masses; but for anyone out there on the field of battle, I can imagine that glory is a bit thin on the ground.
I’ve grown up in a world where our Armed Forces go and fight battles in other places. There’s no siege in Tamworth, there’s no occupation of Norwich and everything is mostly tickety-boo with our relationship with Scotland and Wales. I watch war on TV. I watched Brian Hanrahan count all the planes out and count them all back in again. I watched Kuwait in my student house and I was decidedly nonplussed by the American’s insistence that the launched attack on Iraq would be one of shock and awe. Yeah? Sydney 2000 was a better firework display. I watched war and when I’d had enough of it I switched off the TV.
Time passed and I grew up. I started digging back through my family tree and found that my not-so-distant ancestors served in World War I. They didn’t come home. Their names are listed with their friends on the War Memorial in my home village of Adlington, Lancashire. Through better media awareness, I began to see what war does to people. Takes fit and healthy men and women and pulverises them.
It may not feel like it sometimes, but this is peacetime. These days service personnel do have a choice to serve, they are not conscripted. They are trained and they go at the command of the government of the day, to fight wars that they personally may not agree with. They do it because that’s what they’re there for, to serve. When I switch off the TV they keep on serving and they do it until they are asked to stop doing it, or can’t do it anymore. Sometimes; even when they can’t do it, they do, which leads me to suspect that I’m dealing with a higher quality human being than myself, who would be tanking it off the battlefield at warp factor 9 once the first bullet was fired.
But I never bought a poppy. I was still distant from it, still detatched, still unmoved. Those people who knew serving or retired personnel marked Remembrance Day with gusto. But me, I have no one around me who does. The Armed Forces were at arms length and I had no way of connecting to that. Until earlier this year.
I read Birdsong. Sebastian Faulks book. Well, I said I read it, I mostly cried my way through it. It took a work of fiction to soften my heart and get a tiny glimpse into what those who served in the First World War – the Great War – went through, and it hurt me to read it. It was one unbearable horror after another. It was the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan in word form. I watched that film and I think my head shut down, it wouldn’t take it in. But words got in. They snuck around my defences, my well-reasoned arguments and declared them invalid. People put themselves through the horror of tunnelling under enemy lines, so that I can sit here at a computer in my safe, clean, homogenised and increasingly lobotomised world, and write. A world that back then they believed was worth fighting for and the price they paid was annihilation.
Unimaginable numbers of people died. But, and this was what finally got to me, it was the wrecked shells of men that came home that did it. In many ways those who died on the battlefield were fortunate. But men who came home, not with their bodies decimated but their minds, faced a living death. They came back to a country that really didn’t know very much about treating mental illness. Other than pretty much shutting the worst cases away, there was little treatment or help at the medics’ disposal.
I expect it’s because that I’ve lived with depression and on that level something responds in me. A mind that doesn’t work properly anymore because of what the person’s been through is something I can relate to, something that spurs me to action.
So even if I can’t understand war, I can understand why it’s important to recognise those who gave their lives. Not just physically, but mentally too. For me, it’s not about focussing on those who died, important though that is. It’s those who came home and lived with the consequences. That’s ultimately what I’m honouring when I chose to buy a poppy this year. For me, this quote sums it up.
“No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.”
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong.