Remembrance Sunday always presents a difficult balance to strike, particularly in a church context. Because as the war veterans troop into the pews bedecked in medals, there’s a danger that underneath the sombre veneer a hint of pageantry and celebration begins to creep in – and to me there’s little to celebrate in two wars which ravaged the world across (cumulatively) a decade and claimed an unbelievable 99 million lives along the way. So as a choir director I’m always careful not to use music that could be in any way misinterpreted as celebrating the glory of war (Onward Christian Soldiers, or some of the more bombastic post-WW2 anthems by Vaughan Williams and the like). I’m far more inclined to use the ever-topical O God of Earth and Altar, and anthems like Peter Aston’s So They Gave Their Bodies, a fitting tribute to those who died for the sake of our present – the people who we rightly remember on this day.
Except it’s not that simple. Because the war veterans don’t come to church wearing their medals just to remember the dead – the fact that they’re standing there is symbolic of their triumph, as are the British flags flying on every flagpole in the country. We won. And nor should we begrudge our veterans the respect due to them for that.
It’s just that, to me at any rate, that victory is more than tempered – soured, in fact – by the fact that the war happened at all. I’ve no doubt those who saw their friends killed in it feel exactly the same way. Moreover, it was a war which – I know, in hindsight, but also with foresight – could have been avoided altogether. If Germany hadn’t been forced into a crippling recession in the aftermath of the first world war. If Hitler’s foreign policy hadn’t been essentially ignored for much of the 1930s, except for some tutting from behind desks in Whitehall. The reason that it remains essential to remember the world wars is to avoid anything like them happening again – so to remember the mistakes that we undeniably made in failing to respond adequately to what was happening in countries other than our own (something our leaders might have called to mind as Israel walked across Lebanon, whilst they tutted from behind their desks in Whitehall).
If we’re celebrating any triumph, then, it’s the fact that in 1945, in spite of the carnage, the loss of life and the horror of war, Britain could say that it helped solve a problem that was at least partly of its own making. It was a victory in clearing up our own mess – and persevering until our mistakes had properly been undone.
That’s something else which Mr Blair might like to bear in mind before he prematurely pulls our troops out of Iraq.