Rethinking Remembrance Day: Unpacking Memory, Identity And War

Remembrance Sunday originated out of a national desire to commemorate British troops that died in WWI. In the years following 1919, Armistice Day ceremonies were used to promote the message that “never again” should we engage in the brutality and futility of war. At this time, the grief caused by war was raw. People felt real loss and the need to have a collective ceremony to mourn was understandable of national mourning was understandable.

Initially, the red poppy was worn during this period of mourning to represent the blood of the fallen and to emphasise loss and regret. As a symbol of sacrifice, people wore red poppies to signal a pledge for peace. Yet even as early as the 1930s, people began to wear the white poppy in order to reject the perceived militarism associated with Remembrance Day. A hundred years later, and in light of continued British military violence, the meaning behind Remembrance Day is becoming increasingly problematic.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s nearly everyone would have known somebody who had died at war. But now, what exactly does this long-established service mean? In 2009, the last British WW1 veteran died aged 111, and very few WW2 veterans are alive today. Although the majority of families can recall grandparents’ and great-grandparents stories of war, these memories are disconnected from the experiences of the population today. Yet, as time has passed and the raw memories of these wars have faded, the narrative of ‘national sacrifice’ and ‘collective grief’ continue to persist.

Indeed, this year’s centenary commemorations, like all the others in my lifetime were marked by a large-scale military parades, the national anthem, troops firing guns, and what the Metro described as “a gentle shower” of 175,000 poppies dropped over the white cliffs of Dover. Remembrance Day ceremonies are now national media events, and there is a sense in which there seems a pressure to conform, with for instance, national broadcast journalists and politicians wearing a poppy well before Remembrance Day itself.

It feels as if the entire nation is expected to watch reverentially, as the royal family, members of the British forces, and politicians all lay down wreaths, with The Last Post playing in the background. It seems to be assumed that everyone has the same memories and views about what this ceremony is, and what it is for. What started as an event to commemorate the dead now seems to be entwined into our political system, and used by politicians to evoke whatever sentiments fit their purposes. Theresa May patriotically defended the poppy when FIFA banned football players from wearing it. Claiming to speak on behalf of the population May declared “we want our players to wear those poppies”. Yet, what May was in fact doing, was making the wearing of a poppy no longer a choice, but an expectation, an act which must be done to demonstrate our pride. After all, this is something we are all expected to want. Even last week, amidst all the comment about the BBC’s portrayal of Boris Johnson’s bumbling performance at the Cenotaph, the continued centrality of this event in our national life, remains unquestioned.

The performance of contemporary Remembrance services – across the country but predominantly in London – seems something increasingly detached from the people the ceremony originally intended to commemorate. Are we in danger of not being able to distinguish between genuine respect for the dead and legitimating death as a sacrifice for crown and country? Could it be that our leaders and politicians are trying to use Remembrance Day for their own purposes? Perhaps the “never again” message has been transformed into something else: an attempt to promote a national identity.

Watching Remembrance services in the U.K., it is easy to wonder if they are not, intentionally or not, in fact endorsing war and violence, rather than reminding us why war is so bad; are we commemorating the dead or celebrating the victory? The expectation that we all take part in a culture of remembrance, creates a selective national memory and narrative of past wars that just leans too much towards the self-regarding.

If the purpose of Remembrance Day is to promote a shared duty of care towards British veterans, why has the government still not built a welfare state to support them? Instead, the ex-service people that fought for the nation, are relying on charities that gain their funds from poppy sales. Abandoned by the state ‘they fought for,’ there are around 6,000 homeless veterans in the U.K., 10,000 veterans in prison, and 50,000 ex-troops with mental health conditions. What does this say about our national identity? It says that we leave our soldiers alone to deal with high levels of trauma instead of providing them with high quality, state-funded, care services. Rather than place all this emphasis on Remembrance Day, the state needs to think harder about how it cares for war veterans. It’s hypocritical to frame people who are unwilling to buy a £1 poppy as disrespectful and shameful when the state won’t provide high-quality care for its ex-service people.

Remembrance Day prevents us moving forward. We should not forget our national history, but the rhetoric of “keep calm and carry on” and “lest we forget”, focuses on the past and stops us looking forward. If Remembrance Day really is about learning a lesson from the past, why is it that the British state has engaged in military adventurism since the end of World War 2. The longer we hold onto the emphasis on remembrance, the longer we will hold us back from pursuing a brighter future. If British involvement in World War 2 really was about fighting fascism and standing up for liberal values to reach the goal of peace in Europe, why are we tolerating attitudes which come dangerously close to fascism today?

The 100th anniversary of Armistice Day in 2019 stresses the need for reflection. Rather than glorify war and remain lodged in the past, perhaps we could begin to use this day, as a way to critically engage with the practice of war. Unlike the memories and narratives of past wars which largely attend to a unified experience, some recent actions of the British Army have been largely contested, generating social divides over the role and legitimacy of the military. Irrespective of which side we fall on in this debate, war can no longer be envisaged as a nationally shared trauma in Britain. As our understandings of war are now so varied, the idea of collective grief becomes distorted, fragmented and holds less meaning. Perhaps we need to find different ways to remember and commemorate the dead. Can’t we use remembrance day to think more critically about ‘national identity’ – now and in the future? The expectation that we should embrace a ‘national identity’, the   foundations of which lie in wars that ended 100 or 70 years ago, seems outdated and problematic.

When we recall those who died in these wars we should empathise with those who have suffered a personal loss. But when this suffering is nationalised, and individual experience is removed, maybe the concept of commemoration loses its original meaning. After all, can the subjective human experience of grief and loss really be shared within an imagined community? Every year on 11 November, the British state mobilises this idea of national grief. At the same time, the state repeatedly blocks any political movement seeking to promote collective joy. Can we not think a bit less about the past, and more about building something positive for the future?

Olivia Abbott