Today is Remembrance Sunday. Once again, at 11am, a nation stopped and contemplated those who have fought and died in wars in the last century and a bit.
It’s also a time when some people get very angry over the most futile of things, or twist the meaning of the day for whatever reason.
As such, I’ve been thinking about what Remembrance Sunday is and isn’t about. Firstly, what its not about.
1) It’s not about nationalism – Remembrance Sunday is about troops from the UK and the Commonwealth. There are, at the moment, 53 different nations in the Commenwealth, many of whom fought in WWI and some in WWII because Britain still had an empire and forced them to take part in the fighting. More still fought willingly to defend countries which are not their own from tyranny, often due to a sense of duty to the ‘Motherland’.
This is not a day about Britain, but about a whole host of nations who have many, many dead young and women to thank for their freedom. If you add Armistice Day to that then the number of nations, and lives lost, climbs rather dramatically.
So many seem to view the day, and the poppy, as a source of national pride and identity. It is not. It is so much more than our tiny islands of the north west coast of Europe. It is global.
2) It is not about what you wear – Every single year a storm occurs. The storm is always about somebody not wearing a poppy. Papers, online commenters, radio phone-in callers all rage about a newsreader, footballer, politician or dog who isn’t honouring war dead by wearing some red paper and a bit of plastic.
At its most just (the idea of a just war is not an argument I’m getting into) war is about freedom. Freedom from tyranny, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience; freedom of all kinds. What it isn’t for is so that people can enforce what Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Nicholas Houghton, called ‘Poppy Stalinism’.
We are free to reflect on, remember and honour those who fight and die in wars, or not, in our own way. You can disagree with how people choose to act at this time of year, but freedom of choice and of conscience means that you don’t get to dictate what they do.
(Update: It’s also not about how low you bow!)
3) It is not about the military – Let me be clear on one thing first of all; I am not sure I could put myself in a position where my life is on the line for a cause and I am fairly certain I couldn’t kill for any reason. On some occasions, though, I can see the necessity for doing this (you couldn’t have just let the Nazis take Europe over, for a start). Anybody who joins the military needs a special type of personality which (other than the more psychopatic minority element) I have a huge respect for. The readiness to put yourself in the line of fire to defend the freedom of others is an amazing thing; as Jesus said “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.
However, some seem to view Remembrance as being about the Armed Forces as a whole, rather than the sacrificial acts of people, both military and civilian, in the name of freedom.
The Royal British Legion, who organise the Poppy Appeal, posted this photo, with three children wearing t-shirts bearing the words “Future Soldier”. This is not meant to be some sort of long term recruitment drive, giving some sort of glamour to the idea of being a soldier. War is not glamorous, it’s not an aspiration children should have or be encouraged towards.
And war is not only fought by the military. There are countless acts of heroism and self-sacrifice made by civilians in every single war. These people are being remembered and honoured too, but seem to be airbrushed from the picture all too often as the focus is on those in uniform.
4) It is not a PR opportunity – Two right wing groups in the UK seem to be trying to hijack the agenda around Remembrance. One is Britain First, a self-styled group of concerned “Christians” who dress like the Army stocked by Millets and act like the facist thugs that they are.
This was a tweet they sent this week, clearly changing the idea of remembrance into a right-wing, anti-Islamic concept.
I have very left-wing political views, but I am wearing a poppy this year, as always, and I took part in a Remembrance Sunday service. I would never disrespect anybody by trying to disrupt it, and I don’t know anyone who would. Similarly, many Muslims have fought and died in wars and are being remembered, too. With the exception of extremist nut job Anjem Choudhary and his mob, most UKMuslims either observe the occasion or at least leave it to go ahead as normal.
On the other hand Britain First, rather than respecting the occasion, are using it to score cheap points. I ask, who is being the most disrespectful here?
Then there are UKIP. For the second year running they have complained that their leader, Nigel Farage, has been unable to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in London due to his party having fewer than the six MPs required to get a place at the service. They claim it is because their exclusion shuts out their 3 million voters, leaving them silent. Well, my party, the Greens, weren’t there either, but I still observed Remebrance nonetheless, without feeling excluded.
Once again, what they are doing is making the occasion about them and their leader, not what it actually is about.
Which leads me nicely onto what it actually is about. There’s is only one point here:
1) It is about remembering sacrifice during times of conflict – They called the First World War the ‘war to end all wars’. They were wrong.
War is a fact of life. There were more wars in the 20th Century than in any other century in recorded history and more deaths caused by war than at any other time as well.
Some wars seemed pointless and futile, others had moral justification behind them. All, however, were caused by leaders’ lust for land, power, money or all three.
And all were characterised by self-sacrifice.
People intentionally risked their lives, or were seriously wounded or killed in order to save others. Soldiers, sailors, air crew, resistance fighters, freedom fighters, or ordinary men, women and children carried out extraordinary acts of bravery in the face of horrors and evil most of us cannot even imagine. People fought, defended, rescued, hid others, defied the powerful, died, were maimed or suffered serious psychological damage. They still do, every day in various place on the planet.
Every single one of those whose actions of bravery and sacrifice were for the sake of others deserve remembering and thanking. This is about them. Those in the past and those today who suffer in times of war.
And it is about stopping and learning. As we remember them, we remember the futility of war, of killing people we have never met because of a warped idea of justice. Of bombing whole towns because of the actions of a few. Of tearing apart lives because of the orders of those tucked safely away in their bunkers.
This is why I wear my poppy, as a symbol of remebrance that all war, both just and illegal, is evil. It is full of death and suffering and, yes, heroism. But heroism that nobody should ever have to display.
It is about remembering all of this, then saying, as one and with real hope and conviction, two powerful words to shatter through the pain and evil. Two words to bring peace in times of war, healing in times of suffering, and love in times of hate.