Veterans pay their respects at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day 2020 (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why we must remember

The notion that freedom comes at a price seems to be one that escapes us

Film buffs will remember John Boorman’s rendering of the Arthur legend in his 1981 film Excalibur. At one point Merlin, played with theatrical exuberance by Nicol Williamson, tells Arthur’s victorious knights to savour the unity of victory: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

And, in a sentence, that is the riposte to Zachary Hardman’s contention that allowing Remembrance to be forgotten many not be a bad thing

Not that he doesn’t have a point. Like Hardman, I too have the sneaking suspicion that the annual tribute to the Fallen has started to attract signallers of virtue, the occasional charlatan and indeed a growing sense of coercion of the sort which characterises far less compelling or essentially decent causes. 

From a sense of duty, from sheer necessity and for that “moral claim” Britons fought, died, sacrificed

He’s right too that the faces of those who genuinely do remember grow fewer and older yearly. Though that’s hardly the point. The nature of the sacrifice lives on and the closest Britain has to an “independence day”  is not diminished by the absence of those who secured it. Greece still has its Thermopylae. Its Spartan warriors centuries dead.

The fact is though that, more than ever, the notion that freedom comes at a price seems to be one that escapes us. The idea that the British people were nothing more than a bit part player in securing a future for Western civilization takes greater hold. The blood, treasure, energy and status expended on the pursuit of not one but two world wars increasingly diluted and dismissed.

As American historian Stephen Ambrose said in the final episode of the seminal documentary The World at War:

What did Britain get out of the war? Not very much. She lost a very great deal. I suppose, If you want to look at it positively, she got a moral claim on the world as the nation that had stood against Hitler alone for a year and had provided the moral leadership against the Nazis at a time when everyone else was willing to cave in to the Nazis. The British, I suppose one would have to say, paid the most for victory and got the least out of it.

And while many argue with some justification that the First World War – in which Britain’s human cost was infinitely higher – was the inevitable climax of competing imperial ambitions, this overlooks that fact that German ambitions and behaviour looked remarkably similar in World War One to World War Two. Expansion east, a dim view of the races that lived there and a tendency even in the West to occupational brutality of which “the rape of Belgium” was an infamous and much exploited example.

From a sense of duty, from sheer necessity and for that “moral claim” Britons fought, died, sacrificed. The ordinary, the exalted. The farrier’s lad and the country gent, the clerk and the banker. Their names, we promised, liveth forever more. It was the quid pro quo from the Menin Gate to the village memorial.

Them it is that we remember. The spent currency  of liberty. Fat and happy, we have become convinced of “the end of history”. That this will never happen again. Someone else paid the butcher’s bill.

“It is the doom of men that they forget.”

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