Remembering

Yesterday was Armistice Day, the day on which the fighting stopped in Europe in 1918. Over the years there have been many debates in a number of countries about the value of commemorating this day, or perhaps about the way it should be commemorated. In a piece in the Irish Times newspaper yesterday Brian Hanley, an historian from St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, suggested that the commemoration of the armistice with the use of the poppy as an iconic symbol amounts to ‘fuzzy nostalgia’ that supports ‘the justification of war’.

I suspect this perspective on the poppy and on the commemoration at this time of year, while not unique to Ireland, owes something to the complexities of Irish history. Experiencing Remembrance Day on this side of the Irish Sea (and that includes the observance in Scotland) provides a very different impression. Here every town and village has some ceremony, and in each case it is not at all about the justification of wars, but the expression of community through a shared memory of what was lost. And it is that sense of community mourning that the wearing of poppies on television, or on football pitches, conjures up.

In Europe, my generation was the first in a long time to have been able to go through our lives without the threat of imminent war or the reality of armed conflict between European nations. We have taken peace for granted, although obviously we have been well aware of its absence elsewhere in the world. And in Western Europe at least, we have had democratic government, with all its faults.

There is of course an academic role in all of this: the task of the community is to remember, but the academy should assess, analyse, question, doubt. Still, I believe that it is right for us all to commemorate November 11th, in the hope that remembering the conflicts and killings of recent history will tell each new generation that we must live with each other in peace and show tolerance and respect for the rights and dignity of all.

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3 Comments on “Remembering”

  1. V.H Says:

    Yes, you are correct. The poppy has the effect in the UK of bringing communities together. But it is in lieu of not having a day to mark the war experience of those men I knew, be they in England Ireland or France. It is a quasi-official ceremony.
    In the south of France on the southern edge of the Montagne Noire is a little hermitage. On the walls are plaques, two types. For the dead and the living. Well, all dead now. But back then some were still alive. I met some of these men. Active communists they were, and why, due to their hellish experiences at the hands of their own. Their own mind, not the people they were facing. I met this in Ireland and the UK also.
    What is being forgotten is that revolution was the result of that war. Those men I knew in France blamed a Catholic elite and hadn’t listened to a priest or bishop since the days on the line. Why then were they in a hermitage with a tiny jewel encrusted Black Madonna going around touching those petitions written in stone. They were remembering mothers and sisters who put up the plaques. Friends who died in the war and after. Because for all the errors of the Remembrance Day and it’s managed aspects, it remains at core about the suffering of those who had to set aside what they believed immutable, their very humanity and their belief in others. It is inclusive in spite of the official connection.
    By the way for those that don’t know a piece of shrapnel. If you’ve ever looked under a rotary lawnmower and saw the blade you are in the ballpark. It isn’t fingernail sized like the name implies but a tapering piece of iron about 30cm long and 10-15 at it widest.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    This reminds of the first time a saw a ‘remembrance poppy’, it was 1990 and I had only been in the UK for six weeks to undertake a MA in critical theory at Sheffield university, all seemed so alien, especially the Yorkshire accent!  One cold day in early November I noticed that plastic brooches in the shape of a red flower had started to appear on people’s jackets and coats regardless of age and gender. I remember looking at them with a sense of puzzlement mixed to amusement, had I been catapulted in some kind of collective movie where everybody was playing a part but me? I rushed to get myself one, which I still save in a dusty drawer.
    After many years I am not surprised by the sudden appearance of poppies of course, I am familiar with the ‘Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy’ http://www.greatwar.co.uk/article/remembrance-poppy.htm and its powerful symbolism, which explains its endurance. This year though has been particularly marked by controversy, the “This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time” piece http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/08/poppy-last-time-remembrance-harry-leslie-smith by Harry Leslie Smith, a second world war RAF veteran has circulated widely on social media, and several commentators have echoed the sentiments expressed in the Irish Times article mentioned in the post. Robert Fisk in The Independent has argued that “The poppy helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war” http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/poppycock–or-why-remembrance-rituals-make-me-see-red-8927751.html The left has traditionally walked a very thin lines in matters regarding national identity and its related rituals, often forgetting Orwell’s observation that “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism” in “Notes on Nationalism” (1945) .
    There is indeed a role for academia and rational enquiry in all this, in fact it was very interesting to read the findings of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) study published by the Oxford University Press according to which over half of Pakistanis and 46% of Bangladeshis in Britain say that they wear the poppy to mark Remembrance Day http://www.britishfuture.org/articles/news/million-british-muslims-reject-extremists-on-poppy-wearing/ There are no figures for white Britons although researchers believe they would not be significantly higher than for other groups. At a time of rampant anti-immigration sentiments and religious radicalism such findings are somewhat encouraging.
    For me the poppy is not a symbol of military conquest and national glory; rather it is a symbol of peace, peace not as a generic concept but the hard-won kind, by remembering we do no glorify war, rather we commemorate and express our gratitude to the people who for such hard–won peace gave their life.

  3. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    All very true- and the Irish Times journo is ill-advisedly trying to cause a stir- but there are also those of us in the UK who choose not to wear a poppy. Like many of the poppy wearers we lost family members in the most futile of wars, the causes of which historians are still deliberating over. The reason I refrain: wasteful and unnecessary loss of lives and heroism/bravery/sacrifice are two sides of the same coin. Which side are you on?

    Instead of wearing the poppy I listen to the many poignant ballads which remind me of the downside of patriotism and all of the government-manufactured xenophobic propaganda which motivated my ancestors to go and die “for our country”.
    Another consideration, as an academic, is that there may be international students who take offense to my brandishing an ostentatious symbol which all too often can be misconstrued as a triumphalist manifestation of victory.


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