“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
Over the next few days, these familiar words will be read out with due solemnity in ceremonies and services across the land. We hear them every year, of course, but this year they may have a special resonance as we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the ending of the First World War. And untold numbers of people will echo the last four words of that declaration. “We will remember them,” they’ll intone as they bring the quotation to its end.
But what will we remember? How will we remember? What does it mean to remember?
We’ll dig up stories of relatives or heroes that have become part of the “myth” of the First World War. Medals were won, tragedies were endured, families were decimated and we’ll quite properly want to bring out our tales, often horror, tales of that war that was supposed to end all wars. Many of these narratives will be well polished having been frequently rehearsed.
But this is surely an occasion to do better than that. What about the women who worked in munitions factories, or the shell-shocked and gassed soldiers who spent the rest of their lives in mental hospitals, or the numberless porters who kept the supply chains going in deepest Africa, or sweethearts whose loved ones never came home, or the huge input of troops from across the Commonwealth?
We should surely set such ancillary activities, such supporting effort, alongside all that went on in the trenches and along the fronts where those horrendous battles took place. And the poetry written by women should take its place alongside the familiar words of the men at the front. For this was a war which whole societies fought, directly or indirectly. The cost of it was born by villages and towns, colleges and parishes, members of all social classes.
It’s vital that we keep this vast spread of human endeavour in mind as we commemorate the centenary of the Armistice. But when we’ve done our best with all that, will we truly be able to say that we have remembered as best we can?
Surely not. There is more to remembering than that. The word itself gives us a clue. Just look at it, it’s one of the English language’s unique treasures. We should see it, note the hyphen, as “re-member” rather than simply “remember.” We re-member what has been dis-membered. And the best way to commemorate a war that dismembered such a vast swathe of the world must be that we work hard at re-membering it.
The events that followed the First World War were impelled more by a lust for revenge and punishment than a wholesome effort to re-build what had been destroyed. And the Second World War was the (almost) inevitable consequence of those outcomes.
It was with the creation of the United Nations and its agencies, the Bretton Woods arrangements and the Marshall Plan, that the re-membering truly got under way. And we must surely recognize that we are living right now at a time when that programme of re-membering is at a turning point. Fragmentation, isolation, horrid nationalisms are threatening to dismember the re-membering that has served us so well for the last half century.
The centenary of the Armistice needs to wake us all up to the dangers of the present time. Our remembering, whilst it honours the past, should resolutely face the future. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Lord Griffiths is a Methodist minister, and life peer and shadow minister in the House of Lords