One remarkable fact of recent years is that even as the veterans of the first world war have died and as those who served in the second world war have headed through their eighties and beyond, the memory of the 20th century’s two most devastating wars has continued to be honoured with thoughtfulness and devotion. The idea of commemorating those who defended and saved this country has lost none of its potency. This year, as we head towards the 100th anniversary of the start of what was meant to be the war to end all wars, there are more British poppies in evidence than ever.
Our part in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in particular has become one of the few indisputable moments of our history about which all British people can feel legitimate and unalloyed pride. During it, people from throughout the country (and, indeed, the Commonwealth) played a full part. The Queen herself served in uniform, as an engineer. Even in a time when the idea of our national identity is often looked down upon, Armistice Day at least has always remained a permissible form of patriotic commemoration.
But it is hard not to see a certain guilt too. Over the past decade our armed forces have been deployed numerous times, but seldom with much public support and never with much political strategy. By the time British forces leave Afghanistan next year, they will have been engaged there for longer than the course of the two world wars put together. Yet it is a conflict which most of the public ignored, and continues to ignore. Many politicians turned away from it even as the casualty toll mounted.
As the Taleban come back into negotiations, after our armed forces have spent a decade in the country ostensibly in order to keep them out, it is hard not to reflect that some of our best men and women have been treated badly as well as unwisely by successive governments in recent years. Their mission was never clear: was it to quash the Taleban? To introduce democracy — or the idea of a unitary state — to Afghanistan? Or to fight for human rights? No politician has had a clear answer. Yet while the past decade has seen the standing of politicians in Britain hit an all-time-low, rarely has public respect for our armed forces been higher.
Reflecting on another unwise attempt to engage British forces — this time thwarted — in Syria, George Osborne recently said, ‘There is a war weariness in this country and there is no point denying that.’ This echoed the sentiments expressed by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry who said, as they tried to persuade their country to support an ‘unbelievably small’ strike in Syria, that their own country was ‘tired of war’.
There is something not just sentimental but also slightly misleading in this assessment. Public support for the deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq may have been low, and support for a pointless intervention in the morass of Syria even lower, but that does not mean that Britain, or indeed America, is ‘tired of war’. Few of us have even remotely enough experience to make such an ostentatious claim. What are we supposed to be tired of? Watching the same story on the evening news for ten years?
More likely is the idea that the British people, like the American people, are simply fed up with not having won a war for some time. What news comes from Iraq reminds us of a country we entered haphazardly and exited disgracefully. In Afghanistan a pack of tribesmen with the most basic weaponry have fought the world’s advanced militaries to a humbling stalemate. There has been a disheartening mismatch between the language of politicians entering conflicts (‘This time, we will not walk away,’ Tony Blair promised the Afghans) with the reality: the politicians do walk away, suffering attention deficit disorder.
Remembering the second world war also allows us to remember perhaps the last time that an existential threat was justly responded to and evil ultimately triumphed over by this country. The recollection of that war is good for us. Over the history of the first war, which gave us the symbol of the poppy, hangs an undoubtedly more complex legacy. But it has never been more important to remember that conflict. As the slew of books already emerging in the run-up to the centenary shows, there remains a huge public appetite for tilling over the tragedy of the path to 1914. Was it an avoidable catastrophe? A death-blow to western civilisation? Do we remember it for its unimaginable sacrifice, or as an example of the greatest possible waste?
Perhaps it is still too early to say — the effects of the break-up of the Ottoman empire are still being felt today. Perhaps the same can be said of the British empire. Whatever the explanation, these are the wars through which Britain sees the world in which we live. And for that reason, among others, there remains a deep and appropriate desire for remembrance in Britain. Partly because we are still a nation which seeks to shape the world, rather than be shaped by it. But also because we understand our great good fortune to live in a world built by the unforgettable sacrifice of others.