Armistice Day, ‘Remembrance Sunday’, for many of us means the glorification of war, a parade of power by the military, and an unhealthy hanging on to some Imperial past when what we need is to create for ourselves a new future.
Nevertheless, it is the only public occasion when society as a whole seriously honours its ancestors. It is interesting that Armistice Day, November 11th, by accident of history falls very close to Samhain.
What has happened to all those millions of young men, who died violent deaths, most of them bewildered as to why they were dying so long before their time? Have they gone in peace to any world beyond this world? It seems unlikely.
And what has happened to the green and pleasant land for which they fought? The freedom which they believed in? The ‘land fit for heroes’ to which they hoped to return? Is it not true that the fight for these things is still going on now?
I was born seven years after the end of the second world war; and this has been a defining fact in my life – and the lives of many of my contemporaries – historically, culturally, and emotionally too.
As a boy, I used to love reading war comics; and then ‘Biggles’ books, about the fictional first world war flying ace. As a teenager I would devour historical accounts of the battles, novels set in the trenches, and my parents’ old ‘Picture Post’ magazines. I became sufficiently expert that by the time I did my O level exams I could answer questions on the first world war (which we had never studied in class) better than I could on Henry VIII or Oliver Cromwell.
Although I had a knack of avoiding conflict and fights myself, my life was thick with war.
I was recently interested to hear about an underground military hospital which had been re-discovered in France. World war one: it had been in use only a few days when the entrance got bombed and it became hidden. It is now an amazing archaeological find, preserved in almost every detail.
The twentieth century’s wars are still very close to us.
The amount of past life recall, channelled material and relationship issues which link directly back to these wars is, I find, remarkable. It seems to be coming up more and more; our collective psyche is still drenched in the blood and traumatised by the horror and only now, more than half a century later, with the ‘glory’ of it fading into history, are the real issues coming up to be dealt with.
A friend was telling me about his father, who was at the battle of Arnhem. In 1943, some 5,000 British soldiers were parachuted into Holland, which was occupied by the Germans. I don’t know what the plan was, but it didn’t work. Only about 1,000 of them came back. One of them was my friend’s father, who was 17 years old at the time.
He wasn’t physically injured, but his life was shattered. He was suffering from shell shock. After the war he pieced himself together well enough to get married and have children, but a big part of him was just ‘not there’. He was, perhaps, an extreme example of a very common twentieth century phenomenon: the emotionally absent father.
And so it was for fifty years. And then, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, Arnhem veterans were given some time on TV. And for the first time he spoke about what had actually happened, what it had actually been like, how it felt to have your friends blown to bits and dismembered right beside you, and he cried, in front of the whole nation.
Since then, my friend’s relationship with his father has been healed, at least as well as it could be after so much time. He is really proud of his father for what he did, on that day in 1993.
Some other friends were part of the protest which tried to stop the building of the Newbury by-pass, where 9,000 trees were destroyed to make way for tarmac and motor cars. This was a direct action protest which went on for months, with people sitting in front of bulldozers and chaining themselves to trees.
One day, a world war one veteran appeared on the site, and gave them his medals: ‘We believed we were fighting for England’ he said, ‘and for peace and freedom. But look what is happening. You are still fighting the same fight. You deserve the medals’.
The protesters there found this extraordinarily moving. And the horrible fact is that it is true. We don’t have peace and freedom; we have economic expansion and corporate greed. And they are taking away and destroying what we, and our fathers and our grandfathers, have held dear about England.
We are fighting that fight; not with guns and bullets, but with the same belief, and with the same act of will, as those who died fighting fascism. And in a particular way, I believe we are fighting for their freedom, for their release from being trapped in the collective trauma of the twentieth century which is only now beginning to be resolved, and from the futility of fighting and dying for a freedom which was a lie, which simply wasn’t there to fight and die for. Let us grieve for that.
Honouring our ancestors is not an abstract concept; it is not just a polite thing to do out of a thin respect for the past and a desire not to upset our great aunt’s feelings. It is very real, and it urgently needs to be done – for the sake of both the living and the dead.
And the only way we can really honour the dead of the two world wars is to continue their fight for that freedom, our freedom, their children’s and their children’s children’s freedom, which is what they truly believed was worth dying for. We, born into the second half of the twentieth century, have the task of making all that carnage worth it.
And as I sat with my friends and we talked about these things, we felt them crowding around us. The nation’s war dead, millions of men, blown away before their time, cheated out of their lives and cheated out of their ideals; they are here now, offering us their energy to help sustain us in our struggles. And we, in return, can ultimately offer them their freedom.