Lest We Forget. Should We Forget?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the print edition of the Sunday Island in November 2011 but did not appear on the online version of the paper.

Remembering about remembrance

When I was  a stroppy teenager,  the epitome for me of the distastefulness of the whole charade of Remembrance Day was a man called Ralph Reader, who on an annual basis was the Master of Ceremonies of variety shows extolling the greatness of Britain (particularly England). Great prominence was given to sentimental and jingoistic songs such as “There’ll Always Be an England” sung by old troupers like Vera Lynn who had helped to win the Second World War.

Reader got started in show business producing shows for the Boy Scout movement and had some success on Broadway. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Reader was commissioned into the RAF as an intelligence officer and was awarded an MBE in 1943. He got a CBE in 1957 for general services to the nation. Later he was mainly associated with Scout Gang Shows. In the 1970s, he was appointed to the post of Chief Scout’s Commissioner.

Poppies and a Threadbare Empire

Reader was no doubt an admirable  fellow and I was being terribly unfair to detest him. Call it a clash of generations. We baby boomers had a tendency to arrogance because we had a decent education and the ability to see the tawdriness of post-imperial Britain. The Suez crisis of 1956 is often seen as a significant symbol of Britain’s post-imperial decline, and 1956 was also the year when John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger was first produced and spawned a movement of “angry young men” disaffected by the state of the nation.

Britain’s decline probably resulted from the bankrupting effort required to beat Nazi Germany. In spite of that, the Attlee Labour government was able to establish a welfare state that saved many from dire poverty, provided health care free for all and enabled working class oiks like myself to get a university education and access to high culture. Successive British governments, including nominally Labour ones, have worked hard to dismantle Attlee’s noble edifice.

Reader’s shows were already an anachronism in the late 50s and early sixties and unfortunately tainted the real meaning of Remembrance Day. They reeked of fly-blown nationalism and imperialism and seemed to me to glorify militarism and war-mongering. One year, I was forced to watch Reader’s show at the house of a schoolfiriend by his patriotic parents. They were typical of respectable, conservative, working-class people. Theirs was a small house but they owned it. By this time they were surrounded by families from the West Indies. The last time I was in that area, it was full of mosques and burkhas. Even in the 1950s, the Empire had landed on the white working man’s doorstep. Nostalgia for the old Empire became inextricably entwined with racism and resentment, which to me seemed to simmer under Remembrance Day.

Suffering of Ordinary People

I see Remembrance Day differently now. With maturity, I have developed a better understanding of what my parents’ generation endured to make my life comfortable and secure. My mother worked in an aircraft factory helping to build the Gloster Meteor, the RAF’s first operational jet fighter. Her younger sister told me about running home from school during a German bombing raid. The last time I went to England was five years ago. Waiting for my plane at Heathrow, I heard a call for one-minute’s silence in honour of the fallen. Tears rolled down my cheeks as everyone respectfully observed the silence.

However, even today, cynical politicians exploit the poppy and patriotism. David Cameron arrived in Beijing in November 2010 wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in his buttonhole. The right-wing press heaped praise on him for refusing to remove it when the Chinese asked him. The poppy had a different symbolism for the Chinese. It stood for a particularly brutal phase of British imperialism, the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, during which British soldiers killed tens of thousands of Chinese,  pillaged, desecrated  holy sites, shot  prisoners and raped women. All in the interests of Scottish drug-pushers.

This has now been forgotten and not included in Education Secretary Michael Gove’s ‘patriotic’ school history syllabus.

Pioneer Corps

My father’s Irish patriotism did not prevent him volunteering for the Pioneer Corps. Michael Young, in The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these “hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men” was spectacularly increased  “when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with”. In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class. That is true today as the British working class has lost its identity and has austerity and insecurity forced on it  by rich people who have never done a proper job.

On D-day, 6 June 1944, 13 Pioneer companies landed with the first allied wave and a further ten companies with the second, making a total of about 6,700 men ashore by the end of the day. The first Pioneer party landed 20 minutes after Operation Overlord had started. Some were called upon to provide burial parties, for which they were given special clothing, equipment and transport. The men bivouacked in fields, in unusually bad weather, working extremely long hours with little rest. Owing to the extensive minefields, conditions were dangerous and there were casualties. Over 2,000 British personnel, serving with the Corps, and nearly 6,000 of other nationalities lost their lives.

This was when my father’s sense of smell left him. As well as triggering memories, the sense of smell has served us well as a warning of danger, for example the smell of gas, smoke suggesting that we need to take action to prevent harm by fire. The last thing my father remembered smelling was rotting corpses on the Normandy beaches. My father had no obvious wounds from the war but his anosmia was a real disability. Did Caen teach my father the flimsiness of the flesh, how fine is the mesh that binds muscle to bone, how temporary the breath? Despite his wit and humour, he lived, I now realize, with an unrelenting tinnitus of anxiety until his death. He died of cancer at the age of 56. He had no debts, but only six hundred pounds in the bank. There was insurance to pay for the funeral.

He was not complicit in the malignant forces of ideologies and systems of terror that crushed common people and swept them away. The great tides of history, of isms and empires buffet little people, hurt them, maim them, kill them, uproot them and inflict damage that lasts for years or generations.

As a foreigner living in Sri Lanka I notice how many people have limbs missing. Whatever about the Channel 4 programme or the Darusman report, we all know that ordinary people suffered horribly.

The reconciliation processes in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland have been cited as parallels for Sri Lanka. The road to hell is paved with false analogies. Whatever the wrongs suffered by Sri Lankan Tamils there is no genocidal plan to exterminate them. They have not been held in concentration camps. The government was fighting terrorists, not trying to wipe out the Tamil population. Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like Palestine or the old South Africa. It is not segregated de facto like Louisiana.

As we await the outcome of the LLRC investigations of Sri Lanka’s war horrors, we must contemplate the dangers of forgetting and also the dangers of remembering. Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story Funes, the Memorious, describes a young man who, as a result of a riding accident, has lost his ability to forget. Funes has a tremendous memory, but he is so lost in the details of everything he knows that he is unable to convert the information into knowledge and unable, as a result, to grow in wisdom. Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, said that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake.

There comes a time when truth and reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. Sectarian killings in Northern Ireland sporadically continued long after the IRA gave up their arms. Belatedly, loyalist paramilitaries announced that they had renounced violence (tell that to the Roma that they terrorised into leaving Ireland). There are still riots as one tribe or another remembers its grievances.

Michael Roberts writes: “historical interpretations relating to the ancient past have provided some inflammatory sparks for the obstinacy and confrontations of contemporary times…The hard realities of the present-day ground situation must assume predominance for pragmatic adjustments and accommodation”. Tamil grievances and the general population’s experience of Tiger atrocities may not be ancient but Ernest Renan’s observation that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention is apt here.