I have long wondered what it is that makes me uncomfortable about Remembrance in Northern Ireland.
Obviously, I have no problem with the concept. My grandfather was an officer during the First World War. My father reports being told that his memories were of “constantly marching” – it was, indeed, a much more mobile conflict that popular history suggests. I still have the medals. My own father, of course, served for forty years.
However, I think I put my finger on the discomfort when re-watching the wonderful ITV documentary from the 1970s, the World At War. Historical Adviser to the series was Noble Frankland, who served in the RAF during the War and then became Director General of the Imperial War Museum.
Entirely in line with what several other ex-soldiers say in the final episode (then 25-30 years after the War), Mr Frankland says that those who fought in the War directly often returned home expecting some kind of gratitude. Those who had remained at home, however, did not remotely see it that way; all, including Mr Frankland, agree in retrospect that they should not see it that way either. Soldiers did report struggling with the re-adjustment, the lack of recognition, and coming to terms generally with normal life once again.
My sense is that there are some people in Northern Ireland who do not just wish to remember, but who still expect the gratitude those soldiers initially expected. They could do worse than consult Mr Frankland (who is still living, for the record). Not only does he point out that no such gratitude ought to be expected, but also that future generations can never be expected to understand. Remembrance is not about expecting some kind of gratitude for what ancestors did, and it is not about creating an entitlement culture based on who is a descendant of those on the “right side” and who isn’t; it is, first and foremost, about recognising the brutality and wastefulness of war, respecting those who through no fault of their own were thrust into it (both directly and indirectly), and re-emphasising the importance of avoiding it where at all possible in future.
As for the manufactured outrage about who does or does not wear a poppy, it is undignified and is all about scoring political points now rather than representing the memory of the Fallen in the past. It is shameful.
We can glorify the memories of heroes of the War (as Belfast City Council recently did touchingly with regard to James Magennis VC), but we should not glorify war itself; and nor should we expect some sort of gratitude or entitlement based on what our ancestors may or may not have done. We most certainly should not abuse the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to play political games.
When asked why they were fighting, the soldiers on the World At War give a wide variety of answers – for freedom, for each other, for no particular reason at all. However, none of them was fighting so that we would abuse the past to constrain our and others’ future. As the clock strikes for the eleventh hour tomorrow, we need to remember just that.