I don’t buy a poppy each year and I don’t wear one. I’m comfortable with that but, increasingly, I’m conscious of the insidious pressure. Suddenly, it’s not just whether you’re a politician or you work in the media but now I see that it is simply not appropriate to go un-poppied in education, the civil service or local government.
I was born almost three years to the day after the atomic bombing in Japan at the end of the two wars to end all wars. I was vaguely conscious of the Suez invasion and then I was a teenager during the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis. I joined CND out of principle despite the sensitivities of my dad who admitted once that if it had not been for Hiroshima and Nagasaki his service record would have taken him into the Far East within six months.
It took me a long time to realise how damaged the post war civilisation was. I didn’t really understand why my school friend Mick’s dad licked the family plates clean after family meals – he was a tea planter imprisoned and starved by the Japanese for over five years. I thought my ex-RAF geography teacher who had mad uncontrollable rages didn’t like children – it is obvious now he had serious post-traumatic stress. The local boy who came back from national service broken, ill and deranged after some experience nobody would speak about and all those tense, angry fathers falling out with their children in the 1960s were quite unable to tell people why.
I have nothing against remembering on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I think it’s good for all of us to do that but the hijacking of the occasion into a military festival which we have become so accustomed to is simply weird. In some peculiar way the dead become the justification for the jingoism of the present.
And, bizarrely, the dead still find it difficult to have a voice. We patrol and guard the places where the dead are buried, corral them in foreign countries but we have never let them speak. Wartime censorship, the idea that it’s better to forget and post-traumatic stress have combined to silence them. We know what happened in the Falklands because Max Hastings wrote the book and Simon Jenkins showed the scars but we don’t know what it was really like just as we don’t know about Iraq or Afghanistan. Whether it is weapons of mass destruction, securing the Suez canal or regime change the public excuses are never the true reason for going to war and, sometimes, we’ve been there on the back of the United States which has its own reasons and these are precious little to do with ours.
Have we defended freedom? Did we really do this in Malaya and Cyprus? Did we single-handedly sort out the Balkans? If we had rehoused a couple of hundred Falkland Islanders in the Scottish Highlands would it have mattered in the greater scheme of things? And, why is a military commander sounding off today about how we ought to be joining in the bombing of Syria when, at the very least, the military should be leaving the decisions to politicians – however misguided they may be.
Islamic State, whatever it really is has to be resisted equally across military, technological, political and social fronts but we need to remember the roots of that organisation in the treatment of the Palestinians, our support for some evil regimes in the area down the years, our military adventures and our military cock-ups. It hasn’t sprung up out of nowhere and we helped to create it.
War is not good. The people who ‘gave’ their lives – an absurd word given jingoism, conscription and the mad activities of generals – did not have much choice and if we could hear from them they wouldn’t say it was worth it for the most part. It’s good to remember the people who died each November but we don’t need the church bells of the bishops and the popes who legitimised the conflicts and, personally, I’d be very happy to see the politicians, commanders and royalty crawling down Whitehall on their hands and knees to say sorry and – more than that – promising to think twice before they do it again.