Remembrance, Removed

Note up top: I originally wrote this post in my notebook after watching today’s Remembrance Day ceremony on TV. As you can see, I had some feelings to process. Just putting in a quick disclaimer before I continue:

  • None of what I express represents any employer/group I associate with’s feelings or opinions; only my own in one particular moment.
  • This isn’t me saying that I’m anti-military or anti remembrance service. If I was, I’d have a number of ex-military family members justifiably keen for a “quick word” with me. I’m a former Army brat and respect the reasons why someone would feel a calling to protect their loved ones on such an intense scale.
  •  I strongly believe that our rituals are needed, as they’re what keeps memories alive – it just frustrates me that nothing we do can will ever feel significant enough to commemorate what those who’ve gambled, and in many cases, lost their lives at war have experienced.

I just watched the Remembrance Sunday ceremony on the BBC. It felt odd watching the royal family and a smattering of politicians put on a (likely heartfelt, I won’t deny that) display of solemnity from a distance. I mean this is both a physical sense because of the covid-19 regulations, and in the sense of time passed from the events being commemorated.

Everyone in attendance gathered two metres apart from each other, as well as decades away from the bloodshed of both world wars, while I was even further separated by a TV screen. I sat three layers of removal from any real sense of the original horrors.

The people at the ceremony were so neat. I noticed lots of straight, black edges in their clothing, punctuated by bright, red spots of poppies. I understand that poppies represent blood spilled, lives lost and souls at eternal rest, but the bold, almost domesticated tidiness at the lapels of those there gave everything an abstract feel. Art wanly imitating life.

During the two minutes’ silence, I thought of a soldier in the trenches.

He’s young – maybe about nineteen or so. He’s away from his family for the first time, picturing them sat together at home, perhaps around a fire, certainly worrying about him. He feels he owes it to them to come home alive, having done his duty for his country and, by extension, them.

He feels sick as he remembers what his duty entails. He’s already seen it up close. It’s World War One and combat is still largely fought at close range. His duty to Queen and country involves charging at another man (boy) and seeing his own involuntary scream roaring back at him from this stranger’s mouth – a primal, guttural sound borne of fear and adrenaline.

He sees himself in his enemy’s white knuckles, which grip his gun, because it’s all that stands between him and near certain death. He sees the whites of his opponent’s eyes. They remind his of his collie dog’s eyes during a thunderstorm, ears pinned back and nothing any family member can do to assure him that the sky isn’t exploding.

Our soldier looks up. The sky above him is exploding, and it’s only a matter of time until he’s due to climb back over the top. Tonight, he’ll either steal another son, father, uncle, brother from an ashen-faced family around a hearth, or he’ll break the hearts of his own family, all those miles away.

Do I think in that moment, he’d give a single shit that a prince has just laid another heap of flowers at the foot of a monument in his honour? Would he be soothed by the idea that years from where he is, people will come to place artificial flowers below an artificial grave for him?

Would he care that I, in my pyjamas, dog in lap and throw over my knees managed to stop talking for two whole minutes while the nation arranged its features in a bid to represent solemnity and sincerity in exchange for what he’s had to do?