This is an awesome aerial view of the Tower of London right now. The sea of red situated in the moat is almost 900,000 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British fatality in World War 1, the war which we commemorated the beginning of as recently as July, the combatants told ‘would be all over by Christmas’ (1914) and which raged on for over four years.
They’re part of an installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, and once Armistice Day (November 11th) is over each ceramic poppy can be bought for £25 to raise money for wounded veterans. Not, of course, just of WW1, but of subsequent wars, WW2, and wars where our British soldiers have been more recently involved, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Where, once, these wars were fought between Europe’s Imperial powers, and then the menace of fascism, they’re now being fought against a different foe.
My grandfather & Great Uncles fought in WW1, lying about their ages to join up and, thankfully, for my family, just too young to be thrust into the centre of it all: the war was winding down by the time they’d undergone basic training and had been shipped out to Belgium.
My grandfather and father were involved in WW2 (again, my father just too young to fulfil his ‘dream’ as an RAF navigator, once again that war winding down by the time he came of age).
So I feel personally ‘involved’ in commemorations of these cataclysmic events of the 20th century. While they didn’t make ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ they were willing to do their bit to free Europe from different sources of evil. While they didn’t actively serve in either war, they did contribute, fully, to the war effort in the heart of London from 1939-1945, side by side.
When bombs fell on Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (mother to the present Queen) said ‘I can look the East End in the eye’. And off she and the King (George VI) went to meet the people of the east end of London. The rebuilding began and my father and grandfather were part of that rebuilding effort.
These ceramic poppies are being sold off, and I’ve ordered one. In a way, along with my Grandfather’s WW1 bayonet and my father’s WW2 gas-mask, it will be part of a small collection that keeps their memories alive, part of a small collection that reminds me of what it is to be free in a world that becomes less free as time goes on.
I am, like Ella, like Pookes, like anyone who works for SLN, a naturist. Pursuing that lifestyle has led me on expeditions around Europe, to France, to Germany, to Spain, to Croatia, all countries that have seen their share of division caused by war but now are at peace, free, looking wonderful in the summer months. I can enjoy travelling there and enjoying their cultures, cuisines and sights because, 100 years ago and less, men and boys were heading off to fight for freedoms, to ensure these countries were free. How different a world we should live in had young men -always young men- not been prepared to fight for what they knew to be right. We should always respect and honour what they did.
As one grows older, one grows more cynical, more jaded. Wars fought now seem much less ‘honourable’ in intent. Wars now feel like they’re fought less for freedom, more for oil than anything else.
And yet our nations send the same young men out to fight for the things the old and powerful crave. We cannot possibly regard ill-conceived forays into Afghanistan or Iraq as anything other than tactical, ill-conceived forays for control of oil fields.
This is not to diminish the sacrifice made by our (and that’s our, as in the UK, the US and other nations) young men. I despise war. I despise the fact that people lose their lives to it, or are maimed by it. I don’t discriminate on that. Even a suicide bomber had a mother who mourns him. We should fight for a world where young men aren’t going out to end their lives, or be shipped overseas where their mothers fear they may lose their lives.
179 UK servicemen (including 6 women) dies in Iraq between 2003-2011
453 UK servicemen dies in Afghanistan.
2350 US servicemen died in Afghanistan.
3527 US servicemen died in Iraq.
Few will have understood the intricacies of those wars. That’s OK. Neither did their political leaders.
But they joined up to defend their country. They went off to defend their countries’ values. And some never came home.
While the moat around the Tower of London reminds us simply of British casualties in WW1, and is jaw dropping and awe-inspiring, it should remind us that the Germans could plant an equal number of Edelweiss. It should remind us of the huge numbers who perished in WW2, of entire neighbourhoods taken out to be gassed on the basis of their religion: the Holocaust.
It should remind us that, today, we’re still fighting. Some wars seem idiotic, some wars seem just. The war on terror seems entirely just. Do we hate Muslims? Do we hate Islam? No. We embrace our fellow human beings. Do we look at 9/11, at 7/7, the Madrid train bombings, at gruesome acts of terror carried out by people using Islam as the flimsiest cover imaginable for their gross acts, at events in Syria, at ISIS/ISIL, at the beheadings of journalists and cower?
No. We do not.
More young men may die but be sure of one thing. A sense of right, a sense of humanity and a sense of freedom will prevail.
No SLN posts (at my request) until late Sunday, as we honour each and every man and woman (over the UK’s Remembrance weekend, the closest Sunday to November 11th, 1918, Armistice Day) who’ve made the world a safer place, who continue to make the world a safer place, for all of us. If you should encounter a member of our armed forces over the weekend, in the UK, in America or elsewhere, just say ‘thanks’. It honours not only their ongoing work, but the sacrifice made by each person represented by a poppy placed in the Tower of London’s moat. Of those who died in WW2. Of those innocents who were persecuted in the Holocaust, of those who died in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. And if you encounter someone who is clearly Muslim over the weekend, just say ‘Salaam’ (Peace سلام) to them too.
Howie Lamilton (SLN Publisher)