Four British troops were killed in Iraq this weekend. They will be added to the innumerable toll of people we remember every November as part of the Armistice Day commemorations. Next year, the poppies worn by millions of Britons will symbolise their deaths and the grief suffered by their families.
Since I was a little boy, I have always been moved by Remembrance Sunday. It is one of the few occasions when the British collectively mark a national event with some degree of ceremony. When the nation stands silently for two minutes, it is a powerful symbol of solidarity with the dead.
Here’s what worries me just a tad. When the Queen and the Prime Minister lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph, all ashen-faced and grey, it is not so much the dead that benefit but the myth of the “glorious dead.” But the millions who lie under French and Belgian fields are not “glorious.” They are dead — ash and bone — young lives snuffed out in the madness of the Great War…and for what?
From Flanders Field comes the call to “Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high.” If we are not careful, this is the call of Remembrance Sunday, the call from the “glorious dead” under Flanders’ poppies: “we died a magnificent sacrifice for you, for freedom, for patriotism. And you shall do the same.”
This is a lie. The soldiers of World War One died for folly, for imperial pride, cannon-fodder for the guns of a ruling elite. If we laud King and Country when we remember the dead of war, we perpetuate a myth that always makes Death acceptable, even “glorious.” Some wars are justified, some are not. We ought to remember that Armistice Day commemorates an idiotic war. Mourn the dead, but be angry too at the war that killed them.