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Remembering differently: the centenary of World War One

From the blog The Secret Life of God
Poppies in south Gloucestershire 2014

2014 brings the centenary of the start of World War One, and the beginning of four years of national commemorations.

It’s telling that, in writing that sentence, I nearly typed ‘celebrations’ instead of ‘commemorations’. For the official discourse about the war has a triumphalist tone, one which perfectly expresses a nationalist narrative about the greatness of Britain, the infalliability of past decisions, and the value of the sacrifice.

This doesn’t sit well with me. Like most families in Britain, mine has its share of war stories: a mother evacuated as a young child, a grandfather destroyed by shell shock, and I’m aware that their effects are still rippling down through the generations.

I’m not alone in my unease about the official discourse. A website called ‘No Glory in War’ has been set up as a platform for alternative views of World War One; an open letter, signed by a host of creative luminaries such as Carol Ann Duffy and Jude Law, registers dissatisfaction with the government’s plans to spend £55,000,000 on commemorations aimed at rousing the ‘national spirit’.

Even before they’ve happened, the tenor of the centenary commemorations is uncomfortably familiar. For as long as I can remember, every Remembrance Day has carried the same emotional freight: gravity mixed with complacency, conveyed via a ritual of pomp and military parades.

And these 21st century days, the sacrifice of the soldiers fighting ‘necessary wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq has been added to the toll of the dead of the two world wars. It’s a remembrance that is accompanied by a curious forgetting of history, notably the role that Britain played in the shaping of the modern Middle East and its problems.

The conduit of the official discourse has mostly been the Church of England, with its provision of a Remembrance Sunday service and sermon interlacing the meaning of death and suffering with the significance of the two great wars, followed by a community standing silently around a cross.

It wasn’t until, attending a Unitarian service in the course of researching my book on the spiritual life of Britain, that I discovered it was possible to remember differently. There were no slogans, no doctrines in the minister’s thoughtful talk – just a suggestion that a quiet remembering would be more appropriate than the usual triumphalism, along with some acknowledgement of the difficult feelings about death that British society is so adept at avoiding.

That Remembrance Sunday, I came out of the dissenters’ church feeling that, for once, something real had been said, something that made sense in terms of my own, war-formed family.

So, next month, and for the next four years of intermittent war commemorations, let us not forget, but remember differently.