Today’s Remembrance Sunday was the most significant of recent times, commemorating the centenary of the end of World War One. My uncle Robert Swift was still alive when the Armistice was signed, but died on the 1st January 1919 along with countless others from Spanish flu. He had not been able to return home so his widow, my aunty Lily, received a nicely printed note of thanks from the King along with his two war service medals. He is buried in France. I wonder what he thought of the great imperialist adventure. As a religious man, I presume he thought God was on our side. My father, who fought throughout the Second World War (in Bomber Command – it’s a miracle that he survived scores of missions) couldn’t give a toss about God and all that – he joined up for the adventure, doing so almost immediately the war started. I think he wanted to escape life at home, which was probably quite dreary. His father definitely had a rather Calvinistic streak. I have a letter he sent to my father after he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal after being shot up (he was a rear gunner at the time) during the campaign in Libya. My grandfather, rather than congratulating him, was more concerned that he didn’t let it go to his head and urged him to work harder to make something of himself. No love lost there methinks.
My father underwent what can only be described as an existentially forming experience, his first six years of adulthood were precarious – not that it outwardly ever seemed to show in later years. For most of the decades after the war, he didn’t take any obvious interest in the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies. In his twilight years I think that changed a bit, but his attitude certainly coloured mine. I considered it my duty as a councillor and as an MP to attend the services, but I always found the entirely Christian pieties grating. Not least since most enlisted people saw through the nonsense. Even when I took the oath on joining the RAF – telling them I was an atheist – I was assured that it mattered no more whether I placed my hand on a Bible or a bottle of beer – it was just a routine formality.
I think there is now a greater awareness that the Armistice was merely a punctuation mark in history – albeit a welcome one for those weren’t marched to more needless slaughter. Conflicts have continued, transmuting from one iteration to another according to some immutable law of human aggression – a law laid down in the Bible, among other places. All the pious words are as nothing when compared to the industrious energy poured into conflict. Sad to say, since we have a huge threat multiplier in climate change arriving on our doorstep, new iterations of conflict are here already. A shot may not yet have been fired, but the simple fact that Trump has sent 15,000 troops to guard the U.S./Mexican border against the arrival of the refugee ‘caravan’ is a signifier of what’s to come. Many of those marching north come from farming communities driven from their land by drought.
Remembrance ceremonies may serve humanity better if they contained an imagining of the lives yet to be sacrificed. Sombre-looking, black coated political elites may be forced to search their consciences somewhat more thoroughly if they had to address the possibility of their own culpability, and not just that of their forebears. There are many unknown soldiers yet to be buried.