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A Day for Remembering

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Opposition to the activities of Remembrance Day are at a risk of missing the point. Most opposition, generally but not exclusively left-wing in nature (there are some particularly scary racists who have absurd arguments,) is based upon the notion that 11 November in some way serves to historically justify or lionise the abhorrent conflicts in which the war dead perished.

Blogs such as this, by the vice president of the union of the University of London, stress Britain's shameful imperialistic policies in the past, the way the Remembrance Day processions are taken over by politicians honouring some noble sacrifice, and how the (relatively) right wing origins of the poppy movement mean it is an attempt to justify those that have died in conflicts. All of these oppositions are largely missing the point.

Firstly, the British state's motivations in pursuing armed conflict as a policy do not detract from the loss suffered by veterans and their families, and honouring that loss is the main objective of remembrance day. The senselessness of war is an overriding theme in many remembrance services and processions across the country; indeed the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon (who the aforementioned blogger quoted after misspelling his name) and Wilfred Owen, among others, have a prominent place in Remembrance Day. These poems stress the futility of the ideals that led to war.

In particular, opposition to Britain's involvement in World War One is curious. Whilst the undeniably expansionist, I'll stay away from the politically loaded term 'imperialist', policies practiced by all major powers that framed the war are problematic and worthy of criticism, Britain's actual decision to become involved in the Great War was triggered by the German invasions of Belgium and Luxemburg. Britain was obliged to defend Belgian and Luxembourgian independence under the 1839 and 1867 Treaties of London, which Germany's predecessor state of Prussia had also signed. Germany was invading a country whose independence it had signed an obligation to solely to bypass France's defences on the Marginot Line. Britain's rationale for intervention had as much basis, if not more, than their entry into the Second World War, which few would contest as being appropriate. Whatever Britain's rationale in honouring this obligation, it was something that it was correct to do.

Secondly, there is the charge that the remembrance processions would be hijacked by the politicians of the day, who use it to try and justify policies either past or present. This is an unfortunate fact of any major event, however it does not detract from that event nor does it damage what it represents. George Osborne or Vladimir Putin's unwelcome intrusions into the Paralympic or Olympic Games did not impede the sporting spectacle or overall message of either of the games, and were on the periphery, another example of the constant campaign that is democratic politics. David Cameron can make whatever speech he likes at a remembrance event; it does not change that's what the event is fundamentally about - remembrance.

Finally, though the poppy movement may have been right-wing in its origin, it no longer has any such characteristics. The poppy movement, for better or for worse, is the way that society has chosen to honour the soldiers who have died fighting in wars. The veterans of wars past and present, and the families of those who have lost their lives as a part of the armed forces use poppies and 11 November to help find some closure to the emotional or physical horrors they have endured, the general population use it to show their respect for the fallen or wounded. That is what it is about, not political opposition to the reasons these young men died. I'm sure many soldiers had opposition to the arguments politicians were making when they were being shot to pieces in horrible battlefields. But that's not what Remembrance Day is about; it's a neutral showing of respect for those who have died in conflicts, whether or not the conflicts themselves were agreed with.

It is wise to be wary of the way the military as a whole are lionised in society. It is also sensible to analyse the policies of the past and examine the horrible conflicts that young men and women died in for what they really are, irrational and senseless in the grand scheme of things, but Remembrance Day is not what this is for.