Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
Today in the UK is Remembrance Sunday. It is the day on which the country remembers its fallen in conflicts from World War 1 onwards.
The main event is at the Cenotaph in London, at the foot of which the Queen lays a wreath. It is a ceremony of great tradition and this is its ninetieth year. It is echoed in towns and villages throughout the country, where memorials are to be found for the fallen.
I never fail to be moved by it. At 11.00 a.m. I stand in quiet stillness with the rest of the country observing the two minutes silence. The sound of the Last Post played on a single bugle is the most haunting of laments.
This is a one off occurrence in the year.
My American friends should understand that the relationship between the military and the public here appears very different than that which exists in the States. You will see no flags flown or yellow ribbons or any of the normal day to day recognition of military service or deaths to which you are accustomed in your country.The current wars have or are becoming, the forgotten wars.
You can describe us as uncaring and unwilling to recognise the sacrifices of our troops on our behalf or simply as less militaristic and more cynical about the nature of war.
This worries the government. To combat it, a year or more ago it set up a special beefed-up public relations unit to try and increase our consciousness of what our troops are facing.
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of sympathetic “news” pieces from Iraq and Afghanistan and an increase in the ceremonies to mark military events. If muted, it passes uncommented upon.
Last year, a major soccer match was deemed an appropriate occasion for a march past of troops returning from Iraq. The reason was unclear - maybe it was because there was a crowd and television camera crews guaranteed to be present. Maybe because it was felt that it might stir some interest in being recruited by the younger people who came to watch the game. The result was an outcry and a demand that the parade be cancelled. People questioned its relevance.
It is inconceivable that this would be the reaction of the baseball fans during the World Series to the overflying by USAF fighter jets or that it would be felt "inappropriate" that commentators mention the military watching the game during their broadcast (something that does not normally happen in the UK).
So. for our government and the British establishment, there is a disconnect with the British public. Our two princes have both elected to wear military uniform, as the PR Unit constantly reminds us. It generally pleases people that they are prepared to occupy themselves seriously in a traditional role but other than as a vague symbolism it is given no great significance.
The problem for the Ministry Of Defence PR unit is that reminding people about the fallen in World War 1 and all the subsequent wars is to remind people in the UK of the futility of war.
It is no longer a public that would create scenes like these volunteers crowding outside a recruiting office in London:
The British public are now too conscious that “God is on our side and God is on yours” and knows how one country goes to war against another with the same drumbeat and cheering crowds.
The French marched off with cheers to take Berlin…
…whilst the Germans marched off with cheers to take Paris:
And we all learnt that we went really to carry off our wounded, like these British soldiers in the mud at Pilckem Ridge…
…or bury our dead, like these American soldiers at Bois de Consenvoye
Another problem that the MOD PR unit has is that the military parades at the war memorials pay too little homage to those other casualties of war, like this Belgian refugee near Aydenarde
…or those forced to flee the city of Péronne during the Battle of the Somme 1916
Yes, we stand in silence and respect those that have died in all these wars and we are all genuine in our emotions. But the sense of futility remains. It is heightened because that Ministry of Defence PR Unit regards it as very important that we remember not just those who died in previous wars but also those, of course , who are being killed in current wars.
Two days ago, a news channel began an item saying that British soldiers were greeting each other in the morning in Afghanistan by saying “Remind me. What is the reason we are here?”
On October 3, 2008 the Huffington Post carried the story that a coded French diplomatic cable, leaked to a French newspaper,, quoted the British ambassador in Afghanistan as predicting that the NATO-led military campaign against the Taliban will fail. That was not all. The best solution for the country, the envoy said, would be the installation of an "acceptable dictator," according to the newspaper. “The current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust," the British envoy, Sherard Cowper-Coles, was quoted as saying by the author of the cable, François Fitou, the French deputy ambassador to Kabul.
On October 6, 2008 Reuters reported on a Times story that the Britain's commander in Afghanistan has said the war against the Taliban cannot be won.
The problem that the Ministry of Defence has in persuading us in the UK that there is nothing nobler than serving our country in the military is that the futility was understood at the end of World War 1 and it is there strongly today in our questioning of Iraq and Afghanistan. We can remember with dignity and respect our fallen but cannot tell our children a lie nor give them symbols and flags to artificially create a patriotism that perpetuates it.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the BBC chose today to put on an hour length documentary drama about Wilfred Owen, our greatest war poet. Winner of the Military Cross, killed two weeks before World War 1 ended, he gave our children a simple message as powerful as our remembrance as a nation today:
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori”