Posted by: Jon | 13/11/2009

Lest we forget

Remembrance Day PoppiesAs we approach denouement at Copenhagen, the overwhelming mood amongst informed observers is that the summit talks will fail and the catastrophic human consequences of climate change become an inevitable fact.

This week some of the world’s military leaders have added their voice of grim experience to the alarm and despondency already palpable amongst weary NGOs and climate scientists and increasingly radicalised grassroots campaigners. For the senior generals of several nations have published a collective statement  warning that preserving even existing levels of global security and stability will be extremely difficult if we do not urgently address climate change.

This is far from a new concern.Resource wars and internal strife have been predicted for some years to be likely to escalate in both developed and developing countries as a result of the pressures of climate change. Later this month the Crisis Forum is running another of its series of academic workshops  on Climate Change and Violence. And Professor Neil Adger of the Tyndall Centre has previously indicated the likelihood of violent social unrest as “I’m suffering because of climate change” alters to “I’m suffering because of you – and you – and you“. It seems that after more than sixty years of tranquil lives – if we don’t count the distant armed conflicts  that have continued virtually each day somewhere in the world since 1945 – such times of fear and suffering may well visit themselves upon us again.

With Remembrance Sunday just past, I’ve been thinking about what it is that keeps humans going in times of war and violent conflict with all the attendant hardships of enforced sacrifice and curtailment of self-determination and Louise father, on left, in France with the BEF, May 1940personal freedom. And of how disconcerting it is to see how complacency is causing us to drift so remorselessly towards such circumstances again.

In her introduction to ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, Jeannette Winterson writes of the talismans we adopt to centre us in our lives, to secure structure and psychological order amidst chaos, like “dressing for dinner every night in the jungle, or the men who polished their boots to a hard shine before wading the waters of Gallipoli”. Gerald Kersh wrote of the morale-raising attributes of such tribal ritual and tradition in his 1941 book, ‘They Die With Their Boots Clean’, an account of  wartime basic training in the Coldstream Guards.

But what has happened now to such a deeply unfashionable legacy of empire? What has happened to our culture of public service, of collective responsibilities alongside individual rights, of communal obligations alongside personal gratification, of disciplined self-restraint for the greater good? Is social solidarity confined now only to those dwindling few who wear a red or a white poppy and gather to remember comrades and comradeship at the Cenotaph each November? Do we still recall as the Commonwealth High Commissioners lay down their wreaths that we mark the common ‘weal’, the common well-being?

Perhaps such out-dated notions been smothered in the self-serving deceits that we were threatened by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction or that death and amputation in Helmand Province is to keep our streets safe from terror. Maybe collective striving for the common good has been consumed by our insatiable appetites for material gain, for instant celebrity, for the novel diversions of technological progress, for a secure supply of the oil that ensures these hedonistic pleasures for us?

My newly convalesced and commissioned grandfather, France 1917I suppose that the centring of the soul might now be found by some in New Age ‘love and light’ or born-again evangelism or Islamic fundamentalism or the British National Party or retail therapy or the thrill of chasing a profit or, for those of my disposition, in a spiritual retreat to the land and wild places. Any of these might now serve to define us and tell us who we are, what we hope for, what we believe in, for what we would be prepared to sacrifice our creature comforts  – or our lives. Because, from our apparently unthreatened viewpoint, other people still go with clean or dirty boots to die for us, to enable us the freedom to choose whatever we desire to give our lives meaning.

With the deaths this year of Harry Patch  and Henry Allingham, the First War to end all wars has past from living memory. Though there are still plenty who cannot forget the horror, the boredom, the passionate surge of hot blood, the brutal indifference of cold-blood, the comradeship, the loneliness, the degradation, the all-too-human acts of cowardice and courage of the Second World War and the many other conflicts around the world since Armistice Day 1918.

But such memories are poorly represented amongst the political and corporate bodies that determine our lives. Those who now shape our world for us bring more readily to mind the war profiteers, not the reluctant unsung sacrificial lambs in uniform. It is no longer our leaders that we can look to for direction and guidance for they are unbloodied and untried. They lack the self-knowledge and the compassion of the warrior’s trial by combat and they are failing us. We are the unwitting cannon-fodder and we must look to ourselves to act.  

My father - with Artists Rifles in Wales, 1947Storm clouds are gathering just below the horizon. But, even at this eleventh hour, we still have choices left to us. We can keep on pretending that the worst will happen somewhere else, in some other lifetime, to some unnamed unknown grandchild, to some unknown child on the other side of the world. We can choose to wait and do nothing and let ourselves be taken by surprise before we might fall back on the Blitz spirit of dogged resistance for which we so repeatedly congratulate ourselves. But we would do well to remember that, unlike the Blitz, the tough times visited upon us by runaway climate change will not cease, nor will life ever go back to normal.

Or we could choose now to stand shoulder to shoulder, inspired by the courage of our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents whom we honour on Remembrance Day. And we might consider that, unlike us, they had no choice. Because of their sacrifice, we can still choose to recognise the unprecedented scale of the horror and suffering we will unleash by our indifference. We can choose to understand that it is as much our common duty to strive to mitigate the unthinkable as it was theirs to defend our freedom of choice for us.


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