Merrick, 11th November 2004ce

There are a lot of reasons for remembrance.

Some people do it as a form of nationalism. Some do it to connect with their military heritage and so feel ennobled with the sacrifice, or some other element they see, hoping some of that glory will rub off on their current cause. These people are entirely at odds with those of us who want remembrance to be about commemorating the appalling loss of life of so many people in such conditions, who want it to be a stark reminder of what work we have to do to prevent it recurring.

In many ways, I can't fault the analysis and point made with characteristic elegance in The Great War by genius singer-songwriter Philip Jeays:

It was a great war, The Great War,
The greatest war there's ever been
It was 'a war to end all wars'
It didn't, but that's how it seemed

And you stand there with your poppy
as a tribute to the ones
who gave their lives for nothing
for the fathers and the sons
then the next day you go out
and buy your kids toy guns
well go on, and why not
you've got to teach them while they're young

It was a great war, The Great War,
the greatest war we've ever seen
we killed their side, we killed our side
we killed anybody in between

It was a great war, The Great War,
the greatest chance we ever got
to die for our country
or if not then to be shot

And you stand there in your silence
just like we used to do
like you were waiting for their whistle
for their orders to come through
can't you see you're still doing
just what they tell you to
remember what they did to us
they could do to you

It was a great war, The Great War,
but you led us up the garden path
and still you lead us every year
up to the cenotaph

And you stand there, politicians,
wiping tears from your eyes
with the hands that shake the hands
of the dictators you supply
well I cannot see the honour
nor the glory, nor the pride
and I will not wear your poppy
and I will not stand silent by

Like Jeays, I do not see the honour, nor the glory, nor the pride.

For most of my life I’ve been fascinated by the history of the First World War. It is such an incredible story, so far removed from anything we know, a time when imperialism, patriotism, militarism, eugenics and philosophies that blended them were commonplace and credible. It was amazing how easily that war all got started and how, like any transnational mass industrial process, once it was up and running it was almost impossible to stop. This so surprised the old style generals in charge that they had no idea what to do other than let it escalate and expand.

This pattern continued right to the very end – in most wars the fighting stops then papers are drawn up to make it official. In the First World War the fighting had become so automated and unwieldy that it continued long after. Although we mark the Armistice of 11th November, it was actually agreed and finalised a week earlier. In that week many more were killed, including the war’s great poet Wilfred Owen. Our silence at 11am marks the time the fighting stopped – the Armistice had actually been signed five hours earlier.

The social change the war brought in its wake was equally staggering. The patriotism swiftly gave way to cynicism, epitomised in the image of soldiers marching along mile after mile singing, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, 'we're here because we're here because we're here because we're here...'.

The smashing of old certainties and trust laid the ground out for unrest and radicalism right across Europe in the following decades, from the Russian Revolution to Nazism to the General Strike. It sowed the seeds of the Second World War and the end of the European empires.

In my teens I spent summers on the battlefields of the Somme, I met veterans, I researched the history, and all of it reinforced the fact that the soldiers were hoodwinked and betrayed, and largely knew it. As Somme veteran Captain G Jackson said when revisiting the battlefields in July 1996, 'war's a waste of time, a complete waste of time. It serves nothing and it proves nothing'.

For us to see the sacrifice of those people as something noble and glorious is to betray them ourselves.

The fighting of World War Two isn't quite the simple good versus evil we're told it is. In the UK we're told we won it with a bit of help from the Americans. In the USA, they're told they won it with a bit of help from the Brits. We like to ignore all the other countries involved, especially the far larger part the Soviet Union played, fighting bitter battles and losing far more of their population (a third of all the dead in WW2 were Soviets). Just saying this in Britain and America rouses incredulity and accusations of 'defending Stalin'.

Atrocities were committed by allied forces not only on personal levels but on strategic ones too. The gratuitous bombing of Dresden – a city of no military significance, teeming with Polish refugees – was a war crime that killed even more people than Hiroshima.

In 1944 the advancing Soviets reached Nazi occupied Warsaw, where the resistance fighters came out in jubilation. The Soviets betrayed them, standing still outside the city for over two months as the Nazis murdered tens of thousands of Poles and razed the city, thus making the Soviet advance easier.

Even if you subscribe to the idea that bombing Hiroshima was necessary (ignoring the fact that the Soviets were about to come in to the Japanese war and this was making the Japanese leadership start to seek a ceasefire), the bombing of Nagasaki three days later is utterly indefensible. Yet still the Americans like to see it as their one great war of goodness, a war to rid the world of a racist militaristic regime, even though the Americans sent racially segregated troops to do the fighting.

But these things aren’t the real issue when we address remembrance. Not because they pale compared to Nazi atrocities, but because remembrance is not about the rights and wrongs of the cases for any given war or the deeds therein. It's about not forgetting wars and the sacrifices made by the generations that endured them.

Two generations running we took the healthy young men of Europe and decimated them. We 21st century kids have no frame of reference for it, nothing with which to compare it, simply no idea what that really means. If we are to have hope of preventing it in future we must seek to understand why it happened in the past. We have to humanise, rather than ignore or glibly glorify.

And yet the present day wars are the same in miniature. We still gather young men from the poorest areas to send in to battle under a false banner of ugly supremacism to fight for resources for the wealthy. And, just like the First World War veterans I met, the soldiers and their families know it and say it.

On Thursday 4th November three British soldiers were killed in central Iraq. One of them was 19 year old Paul Lowe, whose 18 year old brother – himself a soldier just returned from Iraq – told the Daily Telegraph that the war was for ‘money and oil. That's what we thought ourselves, that's what Paul thought as well, we all thought that’.

As Michael Moore points out in Fahrenheit 9/11, things would be different if those who order a war sent their kids in, or had to lead the battle personally.

Yet should we let the fact that generals stand at the cenotaph stop us having any commemoration?

If we do that, don't we risk leaving all remembrance to those who would continue the division and killing? The kind of cynical warmongers who changed the name of the day in the USA to ‘Veterans Day’, making it a day for military parades and veneration of those on our side who came back, rather than a day for remembering all who were sacrificed.

Remembrance for me does certainly contain gratitude for the sacrifices made, gratitude for those who died ridding the world of Nazi tyranny. It is also about recognising that war is to be mourned, its victims on all sides commemorated. It is about refuting the claims of honour, glory and pride. It’s about maintaining clarity in our understanding of history, realising what fuelled the destruction, and getting the message that, as Philip Jeays said, ‘what they did to us they could do to you’.

Remembrance is important, and if it is to be effective it's just as important that it be done collectively and publicly. Wearing a poppy is the only way we have of doing that. The fact that different people's reasons for wearing one are various and contradictory is not enough to make me give all conspicuous remembrance up to the militarists.

I know I run the risk of being misinterpreted and seen to reinforce the betrayal; but not to wilfully display remembrance is surely a far greater betrayal.