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Remembrance Begins at Home

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Sometimes a slight is delivered purposefully and deliberately - words and deeds are designed to wound. But sometimes, more often perhaps, hurt feelings are the by-product of good intentions. And it is that latter, self-righteous kind of slight that can be the most damaging and destructive - it is a symptom of two sides with fundamental and deeply held differences about what constitutes good manners and respect. It's difficult to row back from such a falling-out.

Just such a set of misunderstandings may be leading us into very dangerous and disrespectful territory on the question of commemorating WWI. The first world war remains etched on our collective memory as, largely, a tragedy rather than a victory. Whereas WWII has the benefit of central casting baddies - replete with skull and crossbones insignia and monstrous genocidal impulses - WWI is the story of a family needlessly rent asunder. It is this narrative of WWI, in part, that has created the possibility that, as we remember the centenary of the war's first shots, we will officially commemorate the dead of both sides. This move, reported in the Sunday Times is endorsed by the government's special representative for centenary events (Andrew Murrison) and is being supported by, amongst others, the Canadian Government. It would mean the names of fallen Germans being projected alongside the dead of England and the Commonwealth as part of a special remembrance installation. It is driven by good intentions. But it will cause unintended offence all the same.

The logic of this measure is that the commemoration of war dead is purely and simply an act of mourning for the loss of life. We gather about the cenotaph, so the thinking runs, simply in order to remember the dead and to express our sorrow at the horrors of war. That view of remembrance makes broadening our paying-of-respects to include our one-time enemies understandable. They all died. They were all people. They all have a claim to our grief. Except, of course, this model of remembrance is not one that really makes any sense. If we are simply remembering lives lost then why do we commemorate lives lost to war as being particular? Why does Britain not come to a collective halt to remember the victims of cancer? Why doesn't the Queen lay a wreath once a year at a central London memorial to the Spanish Flu epidemic? Or, if this is about the role of humans in ending one another's lives, why do we not demand anyone and everyone wear a commemorative broach in honour of the hundreds lost to murder every year in the UK, or the millions around the world?

Why? Because war is special. And to die in war is, somehow, more special again. Those who die in conflict for our armed services do so - whether we agree with the particular cause at that particular time or not - in our name and on our behalf. Their deaths are sacrificial. And so to commemorate their deaths through mourning alone is to insult their lives and the virtue of their deaths - it is to treat them as a mundane tragedy (the kind that will happen to all of us at some point) - it is to belittle them. We are not just grieving for our fallen soldiers, we are celebrating their deaths too. And we are also, uncomfortable as this may seem, celebrating and remembering their other sacrifice; not in dying, so much as in killing. To hold up those who they killed, on our behalf, as equally deserving of our prayers and our celebration is to deny the central logic of war - that, together, we recognise a time and a space where it is right for our fellow citizens to take the lives of others.

Including those who were our enemies in our rituals of remembrance is built on shaky ground - the presumption that all we do at the Cenotaph is mourn the fallen - but it also chimes with a peculiar modern idea - the perceived universality of our obligations. This notion, that not only are all people equal but that they all must be equal to us, is not a widely shared or publicly held belief. Poll after poll shows that British people still cling to the idea of nation, that they feel more obliged to British people than others and that whilst believing in general equality they are comfortable with preferring their own when it comes to services, welfare and priorities. But this is a belief that is cherished by many in our political class. And it is this rejection of preferment - combined both with our common story about WWI and a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of remembrance - that inspired this proposal and means it will likely not be rejected out of hand. It's a nice, well-intentioned set of delusions but it is a set of delusions nonetheless; and it will lead, if enacted, to a very real insult to those whom we have sacrificed on behalf of Britain.

It is okay to be particular in our remembrance rituals because war is - by its ugly, necessary nature - particular. We send boys and girls to kill and to die on our behalf. If, a hundred years later, we then seek to deny the special and precise covenant that this creates, if we render their deeds and their deaths banal, what trust can those we send to die now have in our national willingness to honour their sacrifices? A nation that refuses to prefer its war dead to the dead of its enemies will be a nation that finds itself, understandably, unable to inspire a will to such sacrifice in the future.