angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Victims of war

War… what is it good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Over the past 4 weeks, I have been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures “The Mark of Cain” by historian Professor Margaret MacMillan. They are all about war and they are brilliant. Personally, as someone who is equally comfortable / uncomfortable with creativity and destructivity, I find the questions she is exploring absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human.

To briefly summarise:

In her first lecture, Margaret MacMillan asks if war is an essential part of being human. Are we destined to fight? In her second lecture, she explores the role of the warrior in history and culture and asks why both men and women go to war. In the third lecture, she discusses the relationship between war and the civilian and the impact of conflict on noncombatants. And in her fourth lecture she assesses how law and international agreements have attempted to “manage” war. There is a fifth still to come, on war and art.

All of what she says is fascinating, but for me there are a few key points she makes that are vital if we want to understand war. And, as she herself emphasises, we have to understand war if we want to stand a chance of containing it or even preventing it.

The first point in her own words: “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organised themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others. Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

It is true. Just as night and day, life and death are integral components of the whole human experience, so are war and peace. Destruction is a necessary part of the process of creation and creativity, aesthetics, design are part of the theatre of destruction. War and peace are intrinsically related and bound to each other.

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The second point she makes is: “We are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight.” This is exactly what I have found while researching and writing my book about my German soldier grandfather. I have felt almost guilty for feeling both those things, and more. War is utterly repulsive, devastating, appalling but it is also exciting, glamorous, awe-inspiring. There is exhilaration in destruction as well as opportunities to reach new heights of bravery, comradeship, adventure, honour, compassion. It is the intensity of living in life/death situations that many people yearn for in times of peace.

A third point is that war also can bring about advances in and benefits to a society. Social change, like women getting the vote having proved their capabilities at filling the male roles left vacant when the men went away to fight; or divides between the very rich and poorest of society being reduced; or the establishment of organisations such as United Nations. Wars often make old structures crumble and corrupt leaders topple. Would total pacifism allow these necessary ruptures in society and their ensuing benefits to happen?

War is usually justified by those who start it. It is “the application of organised violence to gain ends and get others to do what you want” (MacMillan). Machiavelli said “War is just when it is necessary”. Aristotle wrote that the aim of war should be peace. There used to be rules that set bounds on how wars were to be fought: organised truces, the ring fencing of those who were not to be attacked or killed, rules about surrender or the treatment of POWs. But… war, by nature, gets out of control. And now, more than ever, it targets civilians.

It was Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris who declared in the 1940s, “The aim of our bombing is not to knock out specific factories. The aim is the destruction of the German citizen, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany.” Just as the rape of the enemy’s women has been seen as a legitimate reward for soldiers, in total war it becomes legitimate to attack civilians.

Modern developments on so many levels are resulting in wars across the world becoming increasingly out of control and deadly. To me, full-blown pacifism now feels inadequate and out of reach as an immediate solution. And yet striving for peace has to be the way forward. But how? I think my basic approach is largely in line with Professor MacMillan’s when she says that we have to understand ‘the others’ as well as ourselves. We need to recognise that people on ‘the other side’ also suffer. We need to see each other as humans.

 

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Am I the only person who found ‘Darkest Hour’ slightly tedious?

Darkest Hour’s depiction of Churchill in May 1940 is getting standing ovations in cinemas across Britain and America. It will no doubt sweep a mantleshelf of awards into its lap too. Am I the only audience member who was a little bored and slightly sickened by it?

Yes of course, Gary Oldman is truly great as the blatantly alcoholic, often fowl-mouthed, war-mongering Churchill, and the film is beautifully shot and directed etc. etc. And of course winning the war and defeating Hitler was a good and essential thing, something to be celebrated. BUT this black and white, reductionist, at times sentimental, ‘Hero beats Villain’ narrative has now been re-hashed ad nauseam.

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Can the British not come up with a more original, nuanced take on the World War Two story? Can it just for once include some of the more uncomfortable truths about Britain’s role? Like Churchill’s refusal to send aid to the people of Bengal in 1943, leaving them to starve? Like Britain’s own prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes? Like the behaviour of some of the allied soldiers who felt justified in raping, looting and intimidating civilians? If we are going to have another film about Churchill, couldn’t it focus on the 1945 allied policy of the Potsdam Treaty to transfer / expel all German-speaking populations remaining in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, many of whom had lived there for hundreds of years, to the now 25% reduced German territory. “A clean sweep will be made,” said our hero Churchill about the idea. Later, with 14 million German women, children and elderly on the move, freezing or starving to death or being murdered or raped, he came to call the mass expulsion a “tragedy on a prodigious scale.”

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Other European countries are turning the events of World War Two over and over in their minds, inspecting them from infinite, non-nationalistic angles. Look at the harrowing 2015 Danish-German movie ‘Land of Mine’ about the teenage German soldiers, forced to clear the minefields along the Danish coast after the end of the war. Neither side comes out well. It’s not about the winners and the losers, the heros and the villains, it’s about the moral, practical dilemmas faced by all individuals of those times; about the tragedy and fall out of war; about the hero and villain within each and every one of us.

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I am sure I am not the only one who is genuinely bored of seeing and hearing privileged, white, often elderly men in positions of power leading their countries into war and destruction or greed-driven bankruptcy? So, instead of harking back to a victory that is over 70 years old; instead of whipping up audiences into nostalgic frenzy and feeding their desperate hunger for strong leadership and Britain to be “great” again; instead of white-washing our own failings and mistakes, why not focus on things that genuinely would make Britain great again… today?

Can we not, for example, become world leaders in a speedy banishment of damaging plastic products and thereby become great for our forward-looking contribution to saving the planet? Can we not address the devastating inequality of our education system and become great by creating a system that is truly beneficial for all the various needs of young people? Can we not address the inhumane conditions in which we hold prisoners, guilty or not, and become great for our mature, preventative and rehabilitative approach to those disadvantaged by violent upbringings or lack of positive guidance? Can we not be great for our fair, affordable, punctual, green and efficient housing policies or transport systems? The list is endless…

Darkest Hour looks back wistfully to a national hero who, yes, was great at the time in leading the country to victory. But he was not just hero and Britain was not just heroic. Whole nations never are just one thing. There are always nuances, endless shades of grey and it is time that we, as a nation of brilliant minds and hearts, stop wheeling out the old favourite national narratives like we wheel out the old war veterans every November, ignoring their wobbly voices pleading “None of it was worth even a single life”.

For as long as we give our war heroes standing ovations, we will be able to justify war. For as long as we project our own national villain onto others we will be stuck in a binary discussion of Me = goody, hero; Them = baddy, lesser, monster, threat, enemy… we know where that leads. To me, Britain will be really great when our leaders, policies and ceremonies acknowledge the full and wider impact of war and suffering and demonstrate that they genuinely want to avoid it.

It’s time to remember… and this year even German footballers wore poppies

It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.

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I felt very differently two nights ago, however. I had just finished giving my unavoidably somber talk Counter memorials: Germany’s post WWII culture of apology and atonement, when an elderly audience member told the hall about FIFA’s recent decision to allow players to wear poppies (last year it had forbidden them). And, he continued, the German team had also agreed to wear them. All the players would wear black armbands sporting a red poppy for the England / Germany friendly match at Wembley, on the eve of Armistice Day. I honestly wanted to cry, right there and then. But I couldn’t tell if I was deeply moved, deeply angry or some uncomfortable combination of the two.

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On the one hand, I felt awe at the magnanimity of the Germans, showing willingness to adopt the wholly British symbol, whose origin was about remembering – crudely put – all those killed by their forefathers in World War One. I know, I know, Remembrance today extends well beyond that, but nonetheless, the poppy is a singularly British image of our war dead, a huge amount of which died at the hands of the Germans. I wholly support the German decision, but I wonder, would we wear a German symbol that commemorates fallen German soldiers? ‘Bloody good on you, Germany’, I felt but didn’t say, that irritating lump having lodged itself too profusely in my throat.

On the other hand though, I felt furious. Just how much further do Germans have to go in acknowledging the wars? Now they even have to mourn our dead, while their dead soldiers barely get a nod! They, as the losing nation, didn’t, and still hardly, honour their soldiers, even though they lost 4-5 million in WWII alone, compared to the 1.7 million that the British (and Commonwealth) lost in both world wars combined. Of course it’s not about numbers, but that’s a lot of bereaved German families who have none of the comfort that their men will be remembered. For decades there were no memorials to German soldiers at all. They were all looked on with shame and silence. And yet many of them would have been no different to ours: men fighting for their nation. Very few people in this country have thought about what it is like for the losing side, for which stirring patriotism and national pride are anathema. I know that because I talk to audiences, of all ages, all over the country about this, and the overwhelming reaction is: “Gosh, I had no idea. That’s so sad / moving / wrong…”

Untitled.png‘In memory of the dead…’ A WWII memorial in Itzehoe, Germany

You can see I get disproportionally emotional at this time of year! My Anglo-German roots wrestle and strangle each other in my chest as I try to work out what Remembrance should, or could, be about, and to what end. It is wholly right to remember all those we do, but has our little red poppy symbol become so distractingly potent, that it can knock, or raise, public figures off and onto their perches, simply through its absence or presence? Surely that kind of “poppy fascism” (to use Jon Snow’s controversial words) isn’t the right way forward? To me, the difference of sentiments expressed in the words of the English and German football representatives respectively, sum up both what is good, and what is missing, in our culture of Remembrance.

Martin Glenn, the FA (Football Association) chief executive, said: “Remembering and commemorating the men and women who have served this country is ingrained in our nation. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice and we will be honouring them, both on and off the pitch, for our match against Germany. I would like to thank the German Football Association for also agreeing to wear the poppy for the match, in a show of solidarity and unity at this important time.”

Reinhard Grindel, the DFB (Deutscher Fussball Bund) president, said: “I positively welcome the decision to allow both the English and the German national teams to wear poppy armbands, because these are not about political propaganda in any way. They’re about remembering the kind of values that were kicked to the ground in two world wars, but are cherished by football: respect, tolerance, and humanity.

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The main distinction between the World War ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in their approach to Remembrance, is that the winners look back, to all that was. And the losers look forward, to what we should strive for. I think we need both. German WWII remembrance culture is a 365 days a year affair. Their memorials are visible and active reminders of the futility of war, loss, destruction, and discrimination, and they serve to help people learn from the past. Maybe, within the extraordinarily beautiful choreography and largely heart-expanding music (I’d personally prefer a little less of the Spielberg-esque sentimentality) of our Festivals of Remembrance, we too could include more of the gritty reality of war that Harry Patch, the last WWI veteran, knew all too well: “It was not worth it. It was not worth one, let alone all the millions.”

 

 

Remember…

Having spent the past two weeks in France enjoying everything that France has to offer and so much of what I love in life, it is hard to write my monthly blog on my slightly sombre themes of memorials, World War II, the Nazis, remembrance and all that stuff. And particularly on an iPhone from a campervan! But today, as we were driving past anyway, I went to a memorial that has to be one of the most memorable in terms of its immediate and tangible connection to Nazi atrocities.

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Oradour-sur-Glane was a village that was destroyed by the Nazis on 10th June 1944. Not only was the entire village destroyed, but all 642 of its inhabitants in the most brutal way. Just a matter of days after the D-day landings, the Nazis were clearly panicking and feeling the need to demonstrate that their strength was still intact. A group of SS men, who had fought and been brutalised on the Eastern Front, sought revenge for the disappearance of one of their own by rounding up the entire population of the village, separating the men in barns, shooting them and then burning them. The women and children were locked in the church where they were all burned.

The destroyed village has since been preserved as a testimony, monument and memorial to the wholly unnecessary atrocity committed by the Nazis. Walking around it you see not only the eerie shells of the buildings – homes, shops, cafes, places of trade and the church – but also the remains of the everyday possessions of the villagers: their sewing machines, their bicycles, their cars, their beds, their chairs and tables, their spectacles and their watches stopped at the hour that their owners’ lives stopped.

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I had read about this place and, as I always tend to do, I cried. But when I walked around, repeatedly being asked in French to remember, to remember the men, women and children who died that day, I couldn’t really feel anything. Maybe it was the presence of so many other tourists; maybe it was the conscious monumentalisation of the place; maybe so much time has passed that even imagining has become too difficult for people like me who weren’t even alive in those times. Or maybe the joy and sunshine, the rosé and stunning summer scenery, the little French villages, blue shuttered houses and fields full of smiling sunflowers of the last two weeks made me not want to feel the sadness, tragedy and destruction of those times? Maybe I now no longer need to ‘remember’ quite as often as I have in past years. Because through writing my book, much of which touches on this subject and the first draft of which is being read as I write this blog, I am beginning to feel that I personally have remembered enough of the horrors that the Nazis did to others. Maybe I am reaching a time when I will be able to drive past such a place without feeling the pull to stop and ‘remember’.

Or can one never remember enough?

 

 

“Lest we forget”… what? Surely not just the fallen soldiers, but also the futility, waste, destruction and misery of war?

After my talks on Germany’s unique culture of ‘counter memorials’, I am often asked what I would do differently within our British culture of Remembrance. I am always reluctant to pass any kind of judgment on what is one of Britain’s most poignant occasions, for we are true experts in creating meaningful and visual spectacles of solemn ceremony, national pride and gratitude. But now, as the last witnesses of the two World Wars disappear, is it time to shift the emphasis of our remembrance culture from an almost exclusive focus on the fallen soldiers of those two wars to include a broader picture of the casualties and victims of war in general?

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The Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal seemed to think it is time, and this year asked the nation to Rethink Remembrance by recognising the sacrifices made by today’s generation too. I would go even further and shine a spotlight onto the ordinary women, children and elderly who are less obviously “heroic”, but no less brave, casualties of war. For they too pay the ultimate price. Then there are all those whose lives will be impacted for years to come by the losses of their soldier spouses, children or parents, plus the innocent victims of our wartime aggressions – the civilians of the enemy caught in the cross fire of our military strategies and sometimes dubious political decisions. And there are those who have been left physically or mentally scarred for life… who have lost homes, jobs, loved ones… the list is so long.

With our beautiful solemn rituals and sanitizing language, are we in danger of justifying war in a way that makes it an attractive option today? By calling all soldiers who died “fallen heroes” are we mis-using the words ‘heroes’ and ‘fall’, because thousands of them were just young men who were simply following orders to run into a storm of bullets and die a certain death as part of an ill-conceived campaign? Is that heroic, or could we now own the painful facts that it was a tragic misjudgment on the part of those in power with catastrophic results?

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Shrouds of the Somme, a moving new memorial by the artist Rob Heard, first displayed in Exeter and now on in Bristol, seems to me to get closer to the imagery and reality of war that can redress the gulf between the glory of victory and what in reality is generally a bloody, muddy mess. If our rhetoric could include a broader victim awareness along side our wholly justified practice of remembering and honouring those who died defending their countries, I wonder if we would be reminded of the futility, waste, destruction and total sadness of war and seek to avoid it with even more resolve ?

 

 

I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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Back then you would have never associated Habibi (I will stick with that name for potential legal reasons) as looking like a typical terrorist. Today his big dark beard would possibly arouse an involuntary prejudice against a stereotype, but other than that he had smiling eyes, a polite and gentle demeanor and wore shorts and sandals. In an introductory exercise to my mural workshop I got the men to plant a painted seed into a painted earth and let it grow up into the (painted) sunlight. Habibi’s seed blossomed into a beautiful, expansive, healthy looking shrub with red flowers.

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He subsequently translated it onto the wall and then, with a newly found artistic confidence he painted another tree, and added birds. But these birds looked war torn with tatty feathers as if they were fleeing exploding bombs – the bombs that were tearing his country apart, or the bomb that he himself had helped plant? One bird painted with special care was sitting on a nest of five eggs. I couldn’t help but make a link to the five for whose deaths he was in part responsible.

One day Habibi entered the classroom looking like a freshly shorn sheep. He was trembling, in shock and somehow horrifyingly naked. I encouraged him to tell me, and subsequently draw, how he had come to lose the big dark beard that was both his religious and personal identity. This proved to be the trigger for a huge release of pent-up rage first against the prison guards, thirteen of whom had frog marched him out of his cell, chained him to a bed and, pinning him down, shaved off his beard. His rant didn’t stop there however. He raged on about the war in his country and how “they” were killing “his” children. He clearly felt his bombing activity to be justified. It was self-defense derived from a sense of total injustice and helplessness, a state in which he and his people were the victims not the perpetrators.

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Does this ring any bells? Is this not part of what is happening today – for both sides? Reacting to violence with violence perpetrates… well, more violence. And more innocent victims whose deaths need to be avenged. Of course it does, and as this progresses each side feels ever more justified in their violence. So when “taking action”, in itself a potentially positive thing, becomes synonymous with bombing and every other attempt to solve the problem is seen as taking no action, don’t our leaders too become advocators of the very eye-for-an-eye Old Testament mentality that we are trying to combat?

Armed with more national self-reflection, basic human psychology and a genuine will for peace, our leaders could become real leaders in their quest to find solutions for some of the worlds’ massive and complex problems. But for them to be that they need to act completely differently to the real terrorists.

 

 

 

I don’t wear a red poppy, not deliberately to make a point, nor out of disrespect – it just isn’t the symbol that captures enough of what, how and to what end I want remember.

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It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.

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First we have the red poppy, the symbol of commemoration of military personnel who have died in war. They are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or are currently serving and their dependants – there is no question, it is a truly worthy movement of support. But it inspires the question: why is it even necessary? Why are these people, sent by their governments to fight wars not of their making, not wholly supported and cared for on their return by those same governments? Should that not be a self-evident part of the contract they enter into?

Then there’s the ‘To wear or not to wear a poppy?’ question, that rages on each year. Except at times it doesn’t feel like a question but an order; “Poppy Fascism” as some have named it, with people being publically chastised and shamed for not wearing a red poppy. This year it was Jeremy Corbyn, a long-sworn pacifist first. Then more recently Sienna Miller, the actress branded as ‘disrespectful’ in a Twitter storm for not wearing a poppy in televised interviews about her forthcoming film. (The fact that the pin was tearing at her silk dress and removed seconds before she went on air was deemed irrelevant.) Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Conservative defence minister, declared “There should be no excuse for not wearing one so we can honour the war dead.” Is he saying that a poppy is an essential prerequisite to honouring the war dead when for some it is a more personal, complex and inner process? Do we really need a badge that declares we are doing it in the ‘right’ way?

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And now today’s papers are filled with criticism of a distinctly compliant poppy-wearing Corbyn for not having bowed deep enough when he laid his red wreath. And equally for his hand-written message in which he said: “In memory of the fallen in all wars. Let us resolve to create a world of peace.” Sir Gerald clearly had more to say and declared that Mr Corbyn needed to “observe the formalities which all of us subscribe to. It is nothing to do with whether you agree with a particular campaign or not… The Leader of the Opposition needs to understand that you cannot compromise on respect for our fallen, because it is those of our country who have put their lives on the line in two World Wars, who safeguarded for us the freedom to speak our minds today.”

Ok, let’s just look at those words more closely. According to Sir Gerald, a representative of the official voice on the subject of Remembrance, “all of us subscribe” to the formalities. Do we? Should we? Do some simply not think about it while others feel coerced to toe the official line? And is being resolved to create a world of peace really “compromising on respect for our fallen”? And hang on, that world “fallen” grates too in its glaring understatement of the reality. Soldiers don’t usually just trip over and “fall”, they are shot or blown to pieces; many will have died in agony, alone, frightened, slowly. You can’t say that of course, but is overtly not wanting that to happen to more people in the future so wrong? And did “they” put their lives on the line or did it have something to do with the politics of the governments that sent them? And then the real whoppa – they were apparently dying in order to safeguard the “freedom to speak our minds today”. I’m sure they were but can Sir Gerald really not spot the flaw in what he is saying, the sheer hypocrisy of it? Here is a man, Corbyn – and I am not a full-blown supporter of him before I’m written off by his critics simply for being that – who is trying to speak his mind and yet is being shamed and publically shouted down and told he absolutely shouldn’t speak his mind at the one event of the year when huge amounts of people are thinking and talking about some of the most vital questions that face us as human beings: War and Peace; Life and Death. Love.

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As wars continue, with horrific frequency and Britain continues to display an unusual appetite to pursue them, could it be that the words “Lest we forget” urgently need to take on a broader meaning? In his book Empires of the Dead, David Crane describes how post-1917 “a picture of ordered sanity” was created out of “the psychic and physical mangling of a whole generation”. Some of this lingers on today. Could it be that Corbyn represents a more contemporary voice that wants to include more conspicuously in our rituals of Remembrance, the insane but usually un-spoken fall-out of war, namely the victims. War is not just about soldiers bravely fighting and dying for their country. There are always innocent victims. Thousands and millions of them: women, children, elderly, vulnerable and displaced people. There are animals, cultural artifacts, homes, cities and the countryside all destroyed by war. And peoples’ souls, hearts and lives are broken and made frail from fear and trauma. The list goes on, as do the effects…

Harry Patch, the 111-year-old veteran who came to be a symbol of Remembrance Day himself, conveyed the message: “It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands…” I would wear a red poppy, ten red poppies, if I felt that was the underlying message in the forefront of our attitudes AND policies towards war. Or should I say, PEACE.

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