One of my first jobs after finishing University was a temporary post at the Royal British Legion in 1997. I was one of the few non-military people in the building, and this soon grew to be the basis of much of the ribald banter between myself and my colleagues, who were all recently retired from the three services.
I liked them, a lot, and still remember them more vividly than more recent work places. Partly because of the fantastically filthy jokes and terms they had for civvies, but mainly because they were some of the most genuine and warm people I have ever spent time with.
I remember Ron, whose hands still shook from the stress he suffered half a century before, aboard a submarine which had suddenly gone into an uncontrolled dive in the East Asian Sea during the Korean conflict. Had Ron and his colleagues not managed to get the vessel out of the dive at the last minute the pressure of the depths would have crushed it instantaneously. It had been very close.
I remember Ben, who had served on the cold war’s first front-line in Germany in the years immediately following 1945. Tensions were high between the former allies and the prospect of war erupting over what Stalin regarded as the intolerable capitalist presence in West Berlin, deep in his territory of East Germany, was very real. Ben learned a few words of Russian and, being an enterprising man, soon had an illicit cigarette business going with his erstwhile enemies. All the while he knew that if conflict did come to pass, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
Both Ben and Ron had lived in the Twentieth Century’s first half which was obliterated by global conflict and economic depression, and a second half which existed for the most part under the constant shadow of nuclear annihilation. Understandably they thought that conflict was just one of life’s constants, and you had to make the best of it. The Poppy Appeal, held every year as a means of raising money for the Legion and a way for the nation to mark its respects to the fallen, was a practical affair which didn’t change that underlying truism about the nature of our world.
Perhaps Ben and Ron were right. Looking around today we see easily where the spotlight happens to shine, such as on Syria. But in the shadows there are far larger human tragedies unfolding daily such as in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Along with other national remembrance days, there is now an International Day of Peace, marked by the United Nations every September 21st. The emphasis is less about honoring the memory of war dead, and more on what needs to be done to promote genuine peace. One of the ideas behind the day is to promote a global truce in all armed conflicts to mark the day, which is promoted by the PR campaign behind Peace One Day.
But wouldn’t it be better if we were aiming just a bit higher than a single day? And how about dealing effectively with the causes of each conflict rather than its symptoms, which is basically what a truce is about? You wonder sometimes about how limited the human imagination can be when faced with its biggest challenges.
Remembrance Sunday is about symbolism and it feels right that we honor those who gave their todays for our tomorrows, but I wonder if in future we could combine a mark of respect for the fallen with a mark of hope for a better world to come, and a determination to think big to achieve it. After all, the alternative, as the last British Tommy Harry Patch once said, “…is organized murder and nothing else.”
Ron and Ben would roll their eyes, laugh out loud and scoff at that idea, but secretly, I bet they’d agree.