They shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
These reflections from CHACR sit alongside an article by General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the Chief of the General Staff, offering his own thoughts on Remembrance day. In Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen (written in 1914 with little idea of the scale of what was to come over the next four years, let alone again twenty-five short years later) we are exhorted to remember those who have died – so will not lead long lives and grow old like the rest of us. I was struck, as I read CGS’s words, and thought back to the Remembrance Sunday just passed, by how much of the coverage, on-line, in the papers and on the television, was not about those who will not grow old, but, on the contrary, was about those who are, indeed, growing old. Inevitably, there was much coverage of the very few of the World War II veterans who remain with us. We admired their strength, tenacity and longevity, their sense of duty, and their self-deprecation. We hung on their stories. Rightly, we thanked them for their service. We were grateful for what they had done on our behalf, and were, at least subliminally, grateful that fate had allowed them to grow old and enjoy long and fruitful lives despite the travails that had faced them long ago.
By contrast, there was surprisingly little coverage of those of the Iraq and Afghanistan generation who no longer remain with us. Young men and women who will grow not old. Faces and names whose families, and those who have served, will have paused to picture, to grieve over once again, to smile about and, as CGS so rightly says, both fondly and sadly, to remember. On reflection, this troubled me. It seems to me that our annual national period of Remembrance must not be allowed to fade in its significance as the living embodiment of service in two World Wars fades. For a period of time we, as a nation, are asked to give some time to think, properly, about the implications of conflict (it is not just for the one day of Remembrance Sunday: the Royal British Legion begins the sale of poppies towards the end of October; the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey is opened on the first Thursday of November; Remembrance Sunday falls on the Sunday on or immediately before the 11th; and Remembrance Day is the 11th – so our nation remembers, formally, for two or three weeks.) And, it seems to me, we are asked to pause and think about two very different things.
First, people. Rightly foremost, we are asked to pause and remember those men and women, more often than not young men and women, who have died ‘in the service of their country’. And that is a phrase worth unpacking a little. More accurately, perhaps, one should say people who have died, unselfishly, in order to make sure that their fellow citizens – millions of men and women who they have never met – may lead lives as untroubled by conflict as possible. They have given their tomorrows, all of them, so that others can enjoy their todays. Those sacrifices are cumulative. They are not just about the existential preservation of an independent Britain last century. They are about a continued willingness of citizens, generation after generation, past, present and, God-willing, long into the future, to do their best to keep trouble away from their fellow citizens. And, when necessary, to die in so doing.
And so, equally rightly, the period of Remembrance has become a time during which the nation recognises the extraordinary ask that it makes of the people who volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way in the interests of the rest of us. Veterans, old and young, still living, and those men and women now serving, are recognised and thanked for being ‘ordinary people doing the most extraordinary things’. There is a great (oft misquoted) line by George Orwell (or, to confuse matters further, often attributed to Churchill) to the effect that “we may sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence upon those who would do us harm”. I’m not sure how many of today’s Service personnel would find a description of themselves as ‘rough men’ particularly flattering, but the gist of the sentiment remains sound. We continue to ask our Service people, daily, to do very unpleasant and, when necessary, very dangerous things on our behalf so that we can enjoy our way of life without allowing the troubles of the world to come to roost among us. So it is right that we should thank them too, while they live and while they serve.
But this last point brings us to the second and perhaps much more profound and important reason why we should all (not just those whose profession involves security or defence) take a few weeks every year to stop and think about conflict. Because, as General Sir Nick Carter recently reminded us, history repeats and rhymes with a drumbeat of inevitability. We cannot predict the future, but the past tells us that, repeatedly, when humankind suffers hardship and shortage, we have a habit of coming to blows with each other. An increasing tendency away from alliance and towards national self-interest; a pandemic that has many effects, economic, social and isolationist (in many senses); a global economic shock and subsequent shortage of money; rising unemployment; and a threat to natural resources, food supply and water caused by a rapidly changing climate, do not combine to ‘make the world a safer place’. Quite the contrary. Sir Michael Howard wrote a very short and deeply insightful book, published just before Remembrance week in the year 2000, as the bloody Twentieth Century faded away, entitled The Invention Of Peace, in which he argues that mankind has, and always will be, in a state of constant competition (a phrase used all too often recently by the cognoscenti of international affairs) and that ‘war’, as Clausewitz would have it, is merely an extreme tool of that constant ebb and flow, from which there was no rest or relent. The events of the first half of the Twentieth Century were so appalling, he suggests, that the western world invented a fanciful and chimerical state of existence that they labelled ‘peace’ as we now commonly use the term, and have mistakenly pursued that unachievable state at the expense of meaningful competition with those who would work against our interests. In short, when the going gets internationally tough, competition has a habit of spilling into conflict, and that it is irresponsible to wish that recurring theme away. Thucydides is supposed to have said that mankind only ever goes to war for one of three reasons: fear, honour or interest. Most observers would also agree that there is a fourth reason: ‘by mistake’.
Remembrance started as a national event not just to remind us of those who had been lost – on the 11th of November 1919, when the first ‘Armistice Day Remembrance’ was held in Britain, few people needed a reminder of the cost of the last four years. It was held, just as much, to remind us of why those great sacrifices had been made as it was to remind us of those who had made them. This had been the ‘War to end all wars’. Except, of course, it wasn’t. Twenty years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles the world was plunged back into a renewed conflict on a scale not seen before and whose culmination brought about, for the first time in human history, the capability to wreck the planet and destroy humankind completely. Despite the cost of conflict at scale being fresh in the minds of the political and strategic decision-makers – almost every politician and service leader in Europe had seen or felt first-hand the effects of global warfare – war had broken out again, regardless of their best efforts to prevent it.
So what? Twenty-first Century life is full of distractions. Mankind now spends more time staring into screens, be they tiny ones in the palm of our hands, or progressively larger ones from laptops, to televisions, to the silver screen of the Hollywood blockbuster, and increasingly less time looking at each other, properly, face-to-face. We are increasingly globally inter-connected on an individual level, yet, it sometimes seems, increasingly less interconnected, locally and globally, as societies and nations. Politicians and polities, the voters and the voted-for, seem increasingly obsessed with the immediate and, often, the trivial, and decreasingly interested in the distant and substantial. The last few weeks have shown as much concern and interest in Britain in the effects of social distancing on Strictly Come Dancing as they have on the world-wide strategic impact of a combination of a pandemic, fragile economics, the (probable!) change in world leadership, and climate change.
So, the Remembrance period must be retained, preserved and nurtured. The Remembrance period must not be allowed to grow old as those who are left from the World Wars grow old. Age should not weary us, nor should the years of separation from conflict that really affects us here at home, personally and viscerally, in a way that it does in so many other places in the world, be allowed to condemn our understanding of what we are ‘remembering’. As we put on our poppies every year, as far into the future as we can preserve this great national institution, we must continue to use it for three right and worthy purposes: to remember those who have died in the service of those who live on; to thank those who continue to serve, or have served, selflessly, the self-interests of the rest of us; and to remind ourselves that we live in a world of constant competition in which, just below the surface (to twist Trotsky’s observation on war), you may not be interested in human conflict and confrontation, but it is as interested as ever in you. So, in short, use the Remembrance period: to remember and thank The Fallen; to think rather more deeply about the fragility of our comfortable existences; and to remind ourselves to lift our heads from our self-centric worlds and to reflect that we, and our children, may continue to gaze deeply into our screens, unthreatened, because rough men and women remain selflessly standing ready in the dark to visit intervention or retribution, whether it be through human-to-human support and interaction, through close and personal violence, or through distant and ethereal cyber effect, on those who would wish us harm.
This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.