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At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Monday, November 4, 2019

Remembrance is the time when we pay tribute to those who have died in war, most especially the First and Second World Wars. That’s not to suggest for a moment that other wars are not terrible, nor to diminish the loss of anyone who’s lost a loved one in more recent conflict. But it’s a matter of scale. The losses of those two wars reached into every household in the land.

For myself, it feels strange to be writing about Remembrance because I have always been so conscious of my distance from the battlefield, from any fresh take or unique perspective on the horrors of those great wars.

The truth is, I don’t remember. I wasn’t there. I have never been in the armed forces, I have never interviewed a war hero, I have never learned the ways a face contorts when remembering the horrors of the battlefield. I turn up every year to a service of remembrance and I repeat the words: we will remember them. And I wrestle with what that means for me, who does not really understand.

With the exception of today’s serving forces and their immediate family, more and more of us today simply do not understand. As a society we are becoming increasingly disconnected from those moments in history. And so the question becomes: What does it mean for us to remember when, with each generation, we become further removed from anyone who actually might?

This is not a problem that will fade over time: quite the opposite. So I wanted to suggest two ways in which those of us who are far off can remember.

The first is to find ways of recognising the humanness of the experiences. In a world where fewer of us know personally anyone who fought in the great wars, it can be easy to stop thinking of them as real fully fleshed out human beings and reduce them instead to mouthpieces for a message: about sacrifice, and bravery, and evil, and the horror of war. Powerful messages, challenging ones.

We don’t like challenge so we make the message more palatable by making it more abstract, more theoretical. And if we’re not careful, that protective instinct causes us to imagine, not real human figures, but cardboard cut-out mementos that we get out once a year like Christmas decorations.

Millions upon millions of men and women died in the course of those wars: their lives and the lives of those they left behind were three-dimensional, embodied, human.

It is not easy to engage with the reality of a life lived and lost in another time and place. When we have no one standing before us to represent them we need stories: more than the simple facts of name, rank, and date of death.

I was recently re-reading The Restless Wave by our very own Sarah Meyrick and I was struck by how powerfully I felt the horror of the Second World War in that book. Her character, Edward, is an army chaplain, a father, a son, and a man who witnesses terrible things. He is no mere mouthpiece for a message but a three-dimensional human person with failings and principles and a life beyond the battlefield.

The Restless Wave is powerful because it is not a book about Edward’s experiences in the war. By the time we see the battlefield through his eyes we are already deeply invested in his character. We feel connected to his experiences because we can relate to Edward the bad-tempered father, Edward the grieving son, Edward the man who wants to do something good in the world.

That goes a long way to helping us engage in ‘remembering’.

The second way we can help ourselves to remember is by refusing to forget.

One thing that categorically prevents us from remembering is choosing to forget. To ignore the services and the parades. To refuse to observe the minute’s silence.

If we stop bothering with the business of remembrance, then we will certainly find ourselves unable to remember. We will distance ourselves even further from those who gave their lives in the wars, and from what they might have to tell us now.

So here’s some advice from a woman who is far from the battlefield: keep turning up.

There is a reason we gather in communities for Remembrance and it is because remembering at its best is a corporate act. When we act as a community, rather than just a random collection of individuals, we can remember more fully, and more honestly, the fallen. We can access the perspectives of other people with all their baggage and their stories and their humanness.

We can choose again not to forget. To remember those who have died in the service of their country, leaving a hideous emptiness behind in the lives of all who loved them.

This year, I will carry with me Edward’s story, I will imagine the war through his eyes. This year, I will turn up for the services and listen for the stories of people I do not know. This year, I will respond with renewed resolve:

We will remember them.