Friday, 17 November 2017

Time for Living

I seldom take any notice of Remembrance Sunday events on television - or even in person. To me, remembrance is something we should do every day of the year, and the fact that it is the Sunday nearest 11 November is not particularly relevant. More to the point, like many of you, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
This year, however, I happened to turn on the television as approximately 9,000 men and women were marching past the Cenotaph, and found myself unable to look away from the spectacle. A range of emotions appeared to be passing across the faces of the marchers, not least of which was pride. I admit I felt a certain amount of pride myself while watching them, and this was accompanied by a deep uneasiness. What is the difference between this and the annual military parades in Moscow and Beijing? Is the ceremony really about remembrance or is it about celebrating our armed services?
I found it impossible to guess, just from their demeanour and facial expressions, which of those participating in the event were actually war veterans. I could be pretty sure that none of the Girl Guides or Boy Scouts were, but anyone above the age of about 18 might already have seen active service in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and might well have been on the receiving end of the kind of traumatic experiences that gave Siegfried Sassoon nightmares until the end of his life. One gentleman in his nineties, when asked how he felt about being in the parade, paused for a few moments before replying, in an emotional voice, "...COLD, very COLD!"
Discussing with my 92-year-old father his memories of the Second World War (his call-up was deferred because of his father's final illness and was eventually cancelled), gave me further insights into the matter. He reasoned that one of the causes of that war was that the Germans "didn't believe they had lost the First World War", because no invading army ever arrived in Berlin. I suppose the residents of Baghdad may have felt much the same in 1991, when allied troops did not push through to the Iraqi capital because it was possible to obtain a peaceful settlement without doing so. Perhaps the failure to do so was - unintentionally, of course - a factor that contributed to the Iraq War of 2003, when an army of "liberation" did arrive in, and take possession of, Baghdad. And look where that got us.
One of those marching in the procession was Flight Lieutenant (now retired Squadron Leader) John Peters, who for a brief period in 1990 was the focus of the nation's sympathy when he appeared on television as a prisoner of war, captured during Operation Desert Storm along with his navigator. Peters' physical and mental state was apparent from his on-screen appearance, which his captors may have thought would be a cause for shame in the UK; it had the opposite effect. It also sent a clear message to the public that Peters and his companion had been badly treated and that anything they might say on camera would be said under duress.
Peters was soon being hailed as a hero, and says now that he finds it difficult to live up to his popular image. For men and women who suffer in war are often far from being heroes. You only have to read Sassoon's poem "The Hero" to understand that. I feel sure that Johnson Beharry, Britain's most decorated living soldier, does not count himself a hero. Any individual who thinks of himself that way almost certainly doesn't deserve to. At any rate, Lance Sergeant Beharry seemed quite content to be out of the limelight as he pushed an elderly veteran in a wheelchair past the Cenotaph.
One of my colleagues in the field of history recently responded to an invitation to a Remembrance Day event with the words, "I am tired of the British obsession with war(s) so count me out." I can completely understand his point of view. Yet, if we decline to recognise the effects of war on society, what will be our incentive to seek peace, and how will we ever become truly civilised?
One of the favourite songs of my adolescence was by an American band called The Association. It was called "Time for Living". The message was that the singer had been so preoccupied with his everyday activities, such as work, that he had forgotten how to live life. Let us not fall into that trap by spending all our time dwelling in the past. The time to live is now. I think that may be the answer to a lot of 21st-century angst.
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