On the 100th Anniversary of the armistice of World War One, I had the immense honour of watching the Remembrance Sunday service and parade at the Cenotaph, from a balcony of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Both of my parents served in the British Army, where they met during a Cold War posting in West Germany, before my arrival in Troubles stricken Northern Ireland.
My grandparents all served during World War II. My maternal grandfather saw action in Africa, Italy and Greece. He like so many of his generation was permanently scarred by the horrors of what he participated in.
For many years during Autumn half term, I’d travel down south to Sussex to pack poppy boxes with him and his local Royal British Legion branch. But other than some disjointed tales of great escapades, he would never talk properly about what he saw and experienced.
My great grandfather, having survived the First World War, lost his life too soon after he returned home, ostensibly to illness, but we have never been able to fully tell precisely what and why.
Watching the parade of service men and women, veterans, the legion, and listening to the Armed Forces bands playing the all too familiar sounds of military marches was deeply humbling.
And also upsetting. The egos of men, who set nations of paths to wars are not aberrations of history, they feel more like a constant and they continue today. Acts of Remembrance are supposed to serve as warnings against ideas of hatred, the tactics of division and the rhetoric of intolerance.
The Glorious Dead that the Cenotaph commemorates are those who have lost their lives serving our national collective to protect us from these things. It isn’t a glorification of war or militarism, but ordinary people whose circumstances weren’t in any way different to our own, save the era that they grew up in and the sacrifice they made because of it.
But with the rise of the worst forms of populism here, in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere, I can’t help but feel like we are not really learning.
Today we might all behave a little kinder to each other, to be more tolerant of ideas we do not agree with. To not see each other as so different that we divide ourselves between allies and enemies. But tomorrow?
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