Today of course is Armistice Day. For the last twenty years I will admit to feeling some apprehension about the reassertion of Remembrance Day within our national life. I have wondered why this is taking place. Yesterday I saw football teams standing in remembrance before a match. Remembrance has come to take greater prominence within the media than it did in the 1980s and 1990s. It is also emphasised more in civic life, for example in schools.
There are many good motives at work here. With time, people do forget the significance of events, especially if they were not there at the time – and only a small proportion of people in Britain today have strong memories of WW2. I was horrified, for example, to hear last week about a conversation between some graduate students who didn’t know the dates of WW2. We all need to be passing on what we know about WW1 and WW2 including the horrors of the holocaust that – in some respects – went on under the radar of that war. In Britain we are all privileged to live in a time and place of peace. I was privileged to have an uncle, who was very involved in WW2. He was a radio operator in a tank in north-Africa, a desert rat. Towards the end of the war he was in one of the regiments that liberated Belsen concentration camp. I remember him sitting in our living room, when I was about 12, telling me about that. He didn’t say much at all and that fact clearly made a very deep impression.
It is against this background of remembrance and the importance of defeating Nazism that I was horrified to see, on Remembrance Sunday, cars in Britain, painted with swastikas. As generations move on, it seems clear that there has been a concerted effort on the part of our politicians – or some of them at least – to reassert the importance of Remembrance Day. This is for the sake of not letting this remembrance ebb away and to give full recognition to those who fought in WW2 who are still with us. Of crucial importance too, is the remembrance of a new generation of British veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What I find unnerving about some of this is that it has gone hand in hand with the ascent of nationalism within our communal psyche. At the fringes, but increasingly noticeable, symbols such as the poppy have come to be championed, stolen, by distinctly racist, xenophobic parties such as the EDL. It may be best not to give them the publicity involved in rejecting such tropes, but we should be asking how a symbol such as the poppy has been weaponised in this way.
Part of the problem is that all wars fought for the nation are not equally valid moral projects and when ‘for the sake of the nation’ we are led or tempted to think otherwise we are moving into the nationalist territory of putting the nation beyond reproach – a very dangerous place to be. WW2 and the second Gulf War were not equally moral projects, and to amalgamate their remembrance as part of a seamless national project is ethically problematic. What is also problematic is that we should surely, as a nation, be both respectful and generous towards those who fight on our behalf, including, for example, in Iraq. Soldiers did their duty for the nation and as such, they should be thanked and praised. Unfortunately, in the case of Iraq, their government let them down by entering a war without justification and against widespread public opinion. Working out how to recognise the service of those within the armed forces, while also acknowledging the fallibility of national projects, especially military ones, both in political policy and in acts of remembrance, is tricky. A nationalism, however, that is blind to these distinctions, gets us in trouble as a collective. It divides us and what has been a common symbol can become a divisive one.