Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK. As it would be hard to know where to stop with the memories, I shall refrain from starting. My father served in the Second World War, and was a regular before that. He saw service in North Africa and Italy, and latterly in Germany. He did not speak of what he had seen, neither did we ask him. No one spoke of ‘Post-traumatic stress syndrome’ back then – you got on with your life.
He was tough as old boots, and his life had prepared him for what came at him in the war. Orphaned at the age of one, he was put in a Barnardo’s home by his mother when she remarried. His only companion was his older brother, Tommy. He ran away to London aged 14, lied about his age and joined the infantry. He finished the wae as an RSM, and the army was his family; the only one he had until his mid thirties. He expected nothing from life and was not disappointed. The loss of his brother Tommy in the war made him an even more solitary figure than he would have been otherwise.
His generation shaped my view of the world. For those of us who cared about such things, the Anglo-American alliance was the cornerstone of our security. From the Right came resentment at American supplanting us, from the Left resentment at American ‘imperialism’; from most of us came a heartfelt vote of thanks to Uncle Sam for saving what was then called ‘the free world’. I am now the age my father was when he died, and I have lived to see almost all the things which most took to be certainties vanish. Not just the Cold War world, but even the definition of marriage is under threat.
Well, it was always so, I guess. The things of one age pass and another generation comes which knows not Joseph. But on this day of all days, I wonder how far my father and his generation would think that the sacrifices they made were requited? Except that is not how they thought. They fought for freedom and they fought for their families and their country; or, as my father once said: ‘I fought because I was a soldier, and that is what soldiers do.’
My father’s generation was shaped by the ‘war to end all wars’ which officially ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It did not end wars; nothing will. War is a constant of history. Peace is the exception to the rule. In it we wax fat and complacent.
On this day, at this time, I celebrate the sacrifices made by others so that we can get fat and complacent – and wonder whether we have adequately requited what was done for us. For those, like my uncle, who did not grow old, or like my father who did not grow as old as they should have, I have the respect any beneficiary should have. I salute them and their successors who keep us safe.