Ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, November 2014Filip Maljković

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Armistice Day is a day of symbols and ceremony; wreaths are laid and poppies worn, soldiers don their uniform and old monuments which, while usually hurried past with nothing more than a glance, are given new life. To remember is natural, it is written into our humanity and into the very fabric of our society and townscapes, and to remember those whose sacrifice made possible our common life today is an important aspect of our collective remembering. However, on Sunday, as I stood among a small crowd of students, fellows, staff and veterans in Corpus’ New Court, taking in the splashes of red and the solemn sounds of the Last Post, I began to feel very queasy about all this remembering. The line between remembering and glorifying is a thin one; the symbols which we use to remember — the poppy, the flag, the national anthem — feel like symbols stolen from us by Britain First and the far-right jingoists. Indeed, the whole ceremony felt like it belonged in a previous time, where morality seemed simpler and the memory of two great wars was keener. And yet, our country clearly cares about Remembrance; you need only look at the detailed analysis of the profundity of Jeremy Corbyn’s bow to realise this.

Despite my misgivings, I agree with the majority; we ought to remember those who have died in the cause of war and especially those whose sacrifice has made possible our freedom and liberty today (who safeguarded our ability to bow to whatever height we like). However, remembering, at its best, is not just recalling the past, but allowing the past to enter into dialogue with the present. As we remember those who have died in war, we are confronted by the thought of those conflicts which still tear our world apart: the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the increasing tension between Israel and Palestine and unrest in countless other places. To gather in Remembrance of those who have died in the past is to allow ourselves to be moved to action and compassion towards those who continue to live and die in war in our own time. 

The cry of Remembrance ought always to be one of sorrow, a solemn national cry that this should never happen again because every life lost is a tragedy and no war can ever be said to have been ‘won’. Unfortunately, however, discussions of Remembrance call on a dangerous militarism, in which it is a glorified thing to die in the fight against so-called evil — "the old lie", as Wilfred Owen famously called it. Such "old lies" are frequently perpetuated in the media in the weeks leading up to Armistice Day and are given fresh power by the clever recruitment adverts released by the Ministry of Defence. We should be cautious of any Remembrance service aimed at persuading those "children ardent for some desperate glory", to quote Owen again, to sign up in order to make a name for themselves in a country which often fails to give young people any other inspiring options.

That being said, I strongly believe that there are things worth fighting for. There are human values worth dying for and, although with sorrow and regret, worth killing for. In our own day, war has lost much of the moral clarity of old; the enemies are impossible to fully understand or see, the threat seems less imminent, the demarcation between friend and foe is muddied, and the course of action is unclear at best. However, in Remembrance services up and down the country we have an opportunity to open our hearts and minds to these difficult realities and dream of a world where the futile loss of life has ceased and there is a just and lasting peace. We therefore have a duty to rescue ‘Remembrance’ from those who would use it to advertise a narrow-minded understanding of so-called “British values” and refocus the attention on our shared human values. By re-emphasising the importance of Remembrance in terms of (what one would hope are) our shared objectives of equality, liberty and peace, we have an annual opportunity to spend a time of national reflection on how we, collectively and individually, can contribute to bringing them about.

We have a moral obligation, as people who enjoy peace and prosperity, to do all we can for those countries who have descended into the black hole of war or tyrannical government. We must remember the countless refugees pressed against the fences of Europe seeking our help as they flee from violence; we must remember the countries whose land cries out today with the blood of so many innocents; and we must remember those who suffer under the burden of structural injustice and poverty. These are not glorious causes, but they are critical ones and they are worth remembering and fighting for. As we observe that two minute silence or pin a poppy to our breast, we ought to do so in sorrow and gratitude for those who have died to secure our freedom but also pledge ourselves to use all we have — our money, our minds, or our influence — to secure the peace and prosperity of all humanity. In this mission, freed from the limits of narrow-minded nationalism, we can truly do as John McRae asked of us in his famous poem, 'In Flanders Fields':

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.