Are we remembering war the right way?

WHYS Shrine Pic_41007802_australia1_afp416Remembrance Day is a date that stands out in my mind. In my formative years in Australia, it was always a big day in the cultural life of the country. 

For Australians the Great War of 1914-1918 is a watershed in the wider historical conversation we have as a nation. It could be argued that with the blood of these many young Australians we became in our minds, truly one nation. 

And because of this, I’d be very interested to discuss whether Remembrance Day should solely be about paying tribute to those who’ve died, or whether it should also warn us against ever going back to war.

Some question the connection of more recent wars to the scale and horror of the Great War.

Also is there a danger that in amongst the national pride, the flags and the parades, might we lose sight of the individual consequences that many still live with years after they fought?

Is it important that their voices are not drowned out and lost in ceremonies?

And perhaps more fundamental still, is the issue of whether a day or remembrance is helpful for those still living with their memories of war.

I know that for most it is right and proper to participate and remember in a public way. Yet for some, that lived through the horrors of the Great War it is not.

In my life there was at least one person I can recall that believed this.

I was touched and reminded of one of my own family stories of this war by this article and story of Claude Choules:

My family connection

My Great Grandfather Alexander (or Pa I called him) was on the Western Front for 5 years and was a despatch rider.

I had the great privilege to know him and he lived with us the last 4 years of his life.

Like Claude he found the memories of the war so painful he struggled to speak about it and you could see in the eyes of this old veteran this great pain of his life. 

He was awarded 3 medals by grateful governments for his service and yet was against them being worn or displayed in public. He wept on times, when we as non-understanding young teenagers pressed him to tell us about his war experiences.

Both then and now I knew we could not understand the horror he lived through. He said to me, never go to war there are no winners, only losers, and certainly no glory.  

For him Remembrance Day was every day and there was never ever any need to commemorate on any particular day.    

This is Pa’s story and every Remembrance Day I remember this personal snippet of history and I can see him so clearly sitting in his favourite chair in my home.

How this great old man in his 80s and well over 6 feet tall would weep when we would unknowingly provoke memories he wanted to forget.

These memories of far off foreign fields some 50 years or more ago, at that time, plagued his life memory.

He could not forget, but wanted too and I have never forgotten his desire to forget and his heartfelt advice to me.

For some people, and I’d include Pa in this, Remembrance Day wasn’t something to treasure. It was more a reminder of things they want to forget.

I wonder if you have friends or relatives who feel that way too.

31 Responses to “Are we remembering war the right way?”

  1. 1 jens
    November 11, 2009 at 17:24

    what does it mean “are we remembering war the right way?”

    this question implies that there is a wrong way. who decides who’s way of remembering is the right or the wrong way. is it not more important that we do remember war and all the sacrifice, honor, horror and pain that comes with it?

    • November 13, 2009 at 18:17

      everyone should be allowed to remember in a way that they feel comfort in;celebrate, commemerate,after all it’s called remembrance day not do it this way day

  2. 3 Dennis Junior
    November 11, 2009 at 17:44

    Hi, Paul:

    I honestly don’t think that we are remembering the war in the right fashion; But, the problem is that…Most of the people from the Earlier Wars have since past away….

    =Dennis Junior=

  3. 4 Elias
    November 11, 2009 at 18:09

    For those who were effected or not by the war, yes it is the right way to remember.There is no way anything can be done, shown or talked about to avoid future wars. It is a fact there always will be future wars wether we like it or not.

  4. November 11, 2009 at 18:12

    If we do not remember,then,”Theirs was a vain and useless sacrifice”.As someone once said.Rememberance also includes your great grandfather.If he wants to forget,I accept and appreciate his feelings.But please allow the rest of us to say a big thank-you.I think we have the format quite right.

  5. 6 Bert
    November 11, 2009 at 18:35

    I liked that “family connection” piece very much.

    To answer the question, I believe perhaps the question misses the point. The “rememberance” part is tangential. What these days are supposed to do is to attempt, at least, to provide some therapy to those who came back from the wars. Many times, these guys were made to do things they abhor, that continue to haunt them for the rest of their lives. So it’s not that you’re glorifying war, or remembering the war as if it were something glamorous. Not in the least.

    What you’re doing is trying to tell the poor slob who came back that what he did was okay now. He won’t believe it deep down, but at least he will feel welcomed back. Therapy. For the vets.

    • November 12, 2009 at 17:57

      Hi Bert

      I am happy you liked the personal comment. It was a good personal experience for me to be asked to place my first blog for the programme on this topic, as it made me think and reflect on Alexander’s life in great detail, something I had not done for some time. He passed away 33 years ago this month. Yes, I am sure you are right that for many there is social ‘therapy’ and great personal catharsis in the ceremonies we the living can participate in. Maybe for some, like Claude and my Great Grand Father it was something that just did not work for them?

      The hostility I sometimes have seen to people that have the views of my Great Grandfather is something I never really understood, though?


  6. 8 Pro-rated Opinion
    November 11, 2009 at 18:47

    You mean in the same self-serving way in which we evoke memories of 9/11 and the Alamo and sing praises to blood-stained flags.

    November 11, 2009 at 19:17

    I think it is the color and pomp that accompanies these ceremonies sometimes headed by those that did not fight that belie the unavoidable painful experiences and sadness that later visit on veterans. It is true that in most cases there are no winners and yet it is very honorable to be patriotic and volunteer when the need arises. It is a catch-22 and we cannot ignore that there are factors that force people to take arms and defend what they believe in to the hilt. Its complicated like all our lives are. Sometimes We have no better choices left us.

  8. 10 Tom K in Mpls
    November 11, 2009 at 19:23

    The only way it could be wrong is to focus on only one aspect. We need to learn from the past, and no part of the experience is unimportant.

  9. November 11, 2009 at 20:44

    We always remember Wars the wrong way. We remember the glory and polish up the gore. That is why a second encounter always follows.

    World War I according to Lothop Stoddard in The Rising Tide of Color (1921) was the First White Civil War because it was about expansion of colonized territory.

    World War II was an expansion of WWI.

    This led to Korea for the US; then Vietnam; The Reagan wars; then Desert Storm; then the Ivasion of Iraq or the Bush Wars.

    I did not mention 9/11 because it has its own narrative. But if we had remembered the blood and gore of WWI with a jaunticed eye perhaps we could have avoided both Afganistan and Iraq.

  10. 12 Tom D Ford
    November 11, 2009 at 21:14

    I take today and glorify the peacemakers, all the diplomats and lawyers who work so damn hard to prevent wars and negotiate and make treaties.

    All of the protesters who have saved uncountable lives by preventing or stopping wars. All of the people who risk their lives to expose the lies of the ruling elites.

    Yep, all of the veterans who have waged peace, not war. Those unsung heroes ought to have their own memorials across the country and especially in Washington.

    The real Peacekeepers.

  11. 13 Tom D Ford
    November 11, 2009 at 21:20

    I reread Mark Twains “The War Prayer” every veterans day to remind me of the whole of War, not just the “glorious” part.

  12. 14 Richard in SF
    November 11, 2009 at 22:21

    On re-reading the coverage, I find nothing about the wholesale changes in the map of Europe and the Middle East that resulted from the Armistice.
    Poland, for example, celebrates Nov 11 as Independence Day after 123 years of German/Austrian/Russian partition, other countries were re-born, or disappeared.
    The League of Nations was declared, only to disappear after modest successes.

  13. 15 J R Travis
    November 11, 2009 at 22:42

    This is a tribute poem I have written today.

  14. 16 Julie P
    November 11, 2009 at 23:39

    What’s the wrong way?

  15. 18 claudine
    November 12, 2009 at 01:54

    I personally dont understand why we dont just lay it all to rest and start from scratch.
    Why still make such a big noise about it all.
    I wouldnt commemorate WWI or the end of it any more. Is it just because of the one or the other veteran who is still alive?

  16. 19 Tamatoa, Zurich
    November 12, 2009 at 11:42

    Could it be possible to reduce all the world’s war memorial days to one “Global war memorial day”. On that day we think of all the people that died because of war. I would treat war just like other social maladies hunger, child labor, women rights etc. They all have a day dedicated to them. We introduede these days to mourne our personal losses and to prevent these catastrophies in the future.
    We are a global society now. Every soldier lost in a war is a loss for our global society. There no sides in death.

  17. 20 Nigel
    November 12, 2009 at 12:08

    There are two issues:
    1. The genuine and sincere wish of people to remember those who died and sacrificed and use the moment to express it quietly
    2. The photo op that it presents to the media hungry leaders who revel in the pomp and ceremony which the people who died would probably have hated.

  18. 21 clive
    November 12, 2009 at 12:12

    We can not say we are remembring wars the right way when humanity has not yet arrived at solving the differences that cause the wars.

    • 22 Ibrahim in UK
      November 12, 2009 at 13:38

      I agree. Remembrance day is a nice gesture, but to truely appreciate the sacrifices made in war, we have to stop them and work for peace.

  19. 23 Ann
    November 12, 2009 at 14:29

    I feel quite uncomfortable about the way in which Rememerence Day has changed over the last 20 years or so. It used to be a solemn, respectful occasion. But it seems to be increasingly becoming a media event…to the extent of holding a Festival of Rememberence on the BBC. Now maybe it’s just me but I can’t help but think that the word ‘festival’ seems inappropriate? I really don’t know if all the pomp and ceremony and the almost ‘show business’ slant Remeberence Day is now given says much about the tragedy of war or the sacrifices that are made.

  20. 24 Jennifer
    November 12, 2009 at 14:54

    This is a very good question!

    I think in light of the way people want to “remember” wars we are doing it the “wrong” way. It’s hollow blabbering and that’s all. I don’t think some of those in positions of authority really know how to remember anything with dignity; muchless fight for our freedoms. This includes the freedom we have to disagree on issues.

    If people want to remember war (veterans) the best way they can do it is to get right to the source. Talk to someone who has been in the military and thank them for what they do. Sure, you can ask them their thoughts and glean from it something that affirms your political views of war, but really listen to the sacrifices they have made for others. If you are not humbled and grateful after that then you must be rather arrogant.

    • November 12, 2009 at 18:13

      Hi Jennifer

      Even though he would be upset by our questioning of his war service he did share some stories with us from time to time. Nothing in those comments made War ever sound something he was grateful for. Maybe he wanted to pass his obvious hatred of war and his experience of it, to his great grandchildren. There was no ‘political filtering’ going on when we teenage kids talked to him. It was this Veteran making personal comment about his war service that would maybe make uncomfortable listening for others. I appreciate his views are probably not shared by the majority of the WW1 veterans at that time, but that was his position on this issue based on his obviously tragic memories. No politicking, no filtering, no interpretations to fit an agenda. Just his heartfelt point of view!


  21. 26 John in Salem
    November 12, 2009 at 19:03

    Honoring the fallen and remembering why they died is not an obligation, it is an absolute necessity that was best summed up in the words of George Santayana that we all know:
    “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it”.

  22. 27 ernesto
    November 12, 2009 at 19:57

    The greatest war-tourist ever, Ernest Hemingway, said this in his introduction to “Men at War”, speaking in the third person to create a distance no doubt. “(He…), who took part and was wounded in the last war to end all wars, hates war and hates all the politicians whose mismanagement, gullibility, cupidity, selfishness and ambition brought on this present war and made it inevitable.”
    To all boys that think they cannot die and believe in the glory of war we owe a Remembrance Day, because if we do not learn from the past we are condemned to repeat it, indeed.

  23. 28 Jordan Adams
    November 12, 2009 at 23:40

    I am 15 years old, and i can clearly see at my own age we are sending completely brave, honourable men and women into Afghanistan to fight a battle we didnt cause. All for stupid crude oil. We cannot simply leave Iraq and Afghanistan, even though if i was prime minister i would have done that years ago, anyway if we left Afghanistan, all those brave men and women would have died for nothing. All i am asking is this:

    If we will not bring back capital punishment back to Britain, why don’t we send Peadophiles, Murderers e.c.t out there? So good, worthy, innocent people aren’t risking their lives and it is the bad people taking place.

  24. 29 John LaGrua/New York
    November 13, 2009 at 20:58

    Unfortunately,rememberance often accents the romantic notion of the glolrious victories .Lip service is given to sacrifice but the terrible horror is air brushed away.If more was said of the lost pomise of squandered lives then due reverence would be paid to the sacirifice made.Martial traditions run very deep and little has changed over millenia Greek and Roman heroes set the pattern for emulation to the present day.A day spent in the US military cemetary in Courville sur Mer in Normandy amid 10,000 crosses might convert any hawk to a dove.

  25. November 14, 2009 at 13:26

    You remember war as you remember all things by praying to God and studying History,

  26. 31 scmehta
    November 16, 2009 at 07:37

    Can we forget the wars or their martyrs the right way? There’s no way out of the memories or the remembrances; they may be sad but they are always precious. I’m an ex-army (infantry) officer; to me, the remembrance of the dead in the wars is more loving and haunting than those of my own departed kith & kin.

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