100 years of Remembrance - is it enough for peace?
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month one hundred years ago. Imagine the solider, caked in mud, hands gripped around a cold rifle in frayed, khaki fingerless gloves lying on his belly with the chill penetrating to his core. Breath wet and misty from his lips, emanating onto the black barrel then disappearing in time for the next.
Normal life is so far forgotten that this is the normal. This hell is his normal. He can’t allow himself to think of home and it’s comforts because that brings an ache deeper than any war inflicted wound. Keeping firing, keeping fighting. This is his existence now. Not the teacher, the father, the husband, the fiancé, the grocer, the postman and the son that his is. His comrades in war, those that lie near him in replica are his family now. Bonds made that will not be understood outside of this theatre or time. This has been his recent past, his now and his future. He was here yesterday and he survived. And he fights to stay alive to be here to do this again tomorrow. The simplified world of life and death and nothing in between.
And then suddenly it stops. The loud guns fall silent and within a minute another sound. One so obscure and foreign, and not of this place, he thinks he must have died and awoken to this sound of heaven. He puts his cheek down on the freezing metal of the rifle, tilted to one side so that his ear can hear clearly. It’s bird song.
Imagine it but we can’t really. Because we weren't there. To be that person to have endured the most evil construct of human endeavour - war, to have survived and then to have been there when the guns stopped. Those were the chosen few amongst us in global shared history. The rest of us can only imagine that moment but that’s not enough. With any feat of endurance and pain, the second it ends life surges. To have lived the minute before the 11th hour and the minute after is to know the true value, meaning and importance of peace and the cost of war.
All of those that were there have now died as time overcame them. I have always felt afraid of the era when we will no longer be able to sit across a table and look into the eyes of those that saw those horrors for themselves, giving first hand tales that still bring men with the passage of time etched on their lined faces, shed tears. Remembering their friends, forever young, who never went home. Remembering the nightmare they themselves lived through and survived. The bodies, the twisted torn corpses, the mass killing, the extreme hardship of life in the trenches. Looking into those eyes was a window to that hell and we needed to see it to stop us from going there. But the windows have closed and it now becomes a series of accounts, relayed generation to generation and with that comes dilution and apathy.
I was in Washington for the 100th anniversary since Armistice was declared for WW1 ended and found myself searching for the right place to mark that moment. It turned out to be the WW1 memorial in the National Mall, down the road from the White House. What a place to be, at this time. How geopolitically relevant.
The sun was out making the the whole landscape before me glow. Autumnal hues mixed with lingering greens. And by a white circular monument, the War Memorial, with grand pillars and a central stage occupied by a military band, we sat or stood. A ceremony was taking place and people were quietly joining the gathered crowd. All were welcome. The atmosphere was one of calm reverence and remembrance of a time that was far from quiet, resonating with the sound of booming guns. Guns so loud when fired that the ground would shake.
There were a number of speakers at the memorial service and one by one they quietly made their way to the front and spoke to an audience, sat collectively listening. Each with their own reasons to be there. Maybe their own military service, remembering a family member who had served in the war or other wars that came after or just to mark the moment. Their contribution to calling for continued wider peace.
The event had been organised and facilitated by the District of Columbia National Guard and the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C. The senior officer present in his uniform with medals proudly displayed across his chest was Major General DC William J. Walker, the Commanding General of the National Guard in DC. Tall and dignified but with a warm, sincere handshake expressing gratitude to the members of the public who had come to join the remembrance.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, one of the speakers, spoke of the 499 service member from DC who lost their lives during World War 1 at this centennial to mark Armistace Day. She told us of her work to predesignate the D.C War Memorial as the national WW1 memorial, here just down the way from the Whitehouse. Congresswoman Norton is in her 14th term, prior to which President Jimmy Carter appointed her to serve as the first woman to chair the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A professor of law, committed to a lifelong struggle fighting for universal human and civil rights, Congresswoman Norton has been named one of the most power women in Washington.
At 11:00 am there was a national minute of silence, which this group of around 100 shared and then the tolling of the ‘Bells of Peace’ rang out in Washington D.C.
Dr Matthew Margis, from the US Centre for Military History, took to the podium for his speech. He began by asking all veterans from all services from whatever country to stand and be recognised for their duty. I stood in my civilian clothes and felt the man sitting a couple down from me stand too. I couldn't resist the temptation to look around the audience to see who the fellow service personnel were. We might have been in civilian clothes with our military service years behind us, but we stood with that same pride we had stood with once when we were still in service. And of course all those still serving, dressed in their uniforms, stood. Dr Margis spoke about the origins of Armistace day and one fact remained with me. An act approved in 1938 made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday—a day dedicated to the cause of world peace, celebrated as "Armistice Day.” However a year later war was on the brink of breaking out again across Europe.
I wondered, as we remembered and as world leaders gathered in Paris in remembrance and in London as tears were shed by the Queen herself, that maybe remembrance is not the antidote to war. I had thought that remembrance would help us to never steer the war path again but here was historical evidence that it hadn’t. It doesn't mean we forget but it does mean that we have to work persistently and consistently to preserve peace and find our own role in doing that. It’s up to every single one of us. I spent the day scrolling social media because I couldn't help myself. Friends, former colleagues from the army and those that I had met since leaving were posting pictures of themselves adorned with medals of service or of family members, long gone, who had served in WW1 itself. Grainy, sepia pictures of young men - some who came home and some who didn’t.
Today I am fearful of a fractured Europe and I worry that the stability brought to the region and particularly Germany by the leadership under Angela Merkel, in the post cold war era may face a wobble as she leaves and another competes for her place. The timing could not be worse for her announcement to stand down.
Now is the time, as we remember to also call out and oppose the extreme right wing narrative, sweeping across the global landscape. We have alt-right advocate Steve Bannon being provided with platforms to hear his perspectives on the mainstream international stage. I ask would we have asked the figures who were the forerunners that became the Nazi movement to speak at such mainstream events prior to WW2? And to do it in this current climate of remembrance is chilling.
I make no apologies for the comparison. They had a vision and that vision belongs in the same camp as Bannon. Do I believe in free speech? Yes of course but to not provide Bannon a mainstream platform is not to curtail his freedom to speak. He is already speaking out. No-one is muzzling him. I appreciate the argument that it is better to know what he is percolating and plotting out in the open, however. In the balance of things, which is more important? And would things have been different historically if the world could have heart Hitler in the warm up period? Maybe. But that relies on humanity being tuned in to repel, and also for a significant section of it to be on the counter side of his argument and ambitions. And right now, I’m not sure we are there as much as we would like to think we are.
The establishment of the national Armistice holiday was campaigned for in 1938 and then we had war. Normalising the likes of Bannon by having him on mainstream events - first NewsXchange and next Oxford University, even though we are just days post marking 100 years of war and division and death and loss, makes me wonder if we are on autopilot back to war, however far down the line, in whatever form that takes.
As the ceremony came to a close and floral tributes laid, I ventured forward to give my thanks to the organisers. I had remembered the past and pondered the future which is precisely what I had been searching for when I left my Georgetown hotel. I found myself thanking Maj Gen Walker himself and once he knew I was from London and I formally served in the British Army, he summoned his team for a group photograph with me. This does not normally happen when I approach senior military officers I hasten to add. I was taken aback by the warmth and sincerity of a senior officer to a visitor to his country. I told him about my time at RMAS and then into his jacket pocket he reached and produced a medal. He described how this coin, the Challenge Coin, is presented as a token of gratitude for service to military personnel. With a handshake it was handed over to me in the traditional way. I was incredibly moved by the gesture on today of all days.
It was indeed a perfect way to end this moment of time of remembrance and I felt a belonging to a network of people who had or still do, wear uniform and serve their country. May we never need a remembrance day to mark any other war and may the lessons taught to us as by the loss of so many be enough to keep us on the road to peace.