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Why We Remember

On Remembrance Sunday this year many households stood silently on their doorsteps at 11.00am to remember those who have died in war and today – 11 November 2020 - we came together as a school community at St John’s to remember all who have been lost or affected by conflict through the years, including our former pupils and staff. 

It has been, of course, a day of remembrance like no other. We have come together despite not being able to be together physically, services held have required people to be socially distanced, and the Queen marked 100 years since the first laying of a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey through a pre-recorded service.

It is traditional at remembrance services to hear the words taken from Robert Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Today I wanted to think about why and whether we should continue to mark this occasion in the 21st century. I’ve marked Remembrance Day for as long as I can remember but it took on a new significance in my life when I met my husband. He is a former solider in the parachute regiment and, through him, my life has been filled with members of the serving military. These personal friendships and connections have brought an immediacy to the act of remembrance for me, highlighting its importance as a moment to reflect on the effects and losses of more modern conflicts, alongside the sacrifices of the First and Second World Wars.

I have seen, in a way that I may never otherwise have fully understood, the impact of family members leaving to work in a war zone and the endurance of uncertainty and extended absence that accompanies this. I have seen my husband’s best friend return from Afghanistan and witnessed the months it took for him to recover from what he had seen. I have received the news that a friend had been injured when an improvised explosive device detonated under the army vehicle he was travelling in, and watched him recover, including spending time in what was the military rehabilitation centre, just down the road at Headley Court, before it was disbanded.

But I do not think that the reason Remembrance Day remains relevant today is simply because we should honour the sacrifices that so many have made for us, or even that it is vital that we pause to appreciate our freedoms, although these are both valid and important reasons. Remembrance Day actually embodies something bigger and more fundamental than this.

In one of the national papers this week, they supported the act of remembrance saying the following: “The sadness and sacrifice of these past eight months lends added poignancy to the greater sadness and sacrifice experienced in previous eras. It should also provide some solace to be reminded that however bleak life seems now, it was not so long ago a great deal bleaker.”

I don’t think that this is where the importance lies either. Comparisons of bleakness, while understandable at difficult times, do not give purpose to the act of remembrance.  Alongside remembering the fallen and the permanently affected by war, there is a deeper value in the fact that there are precious few moments in the year which bring us together and compel us to look beyond ourselves and to reflect. 

The act of remembrance cuts through religious and political differences, through generational and societal divides and can be a unifying moment in the national calendar, and even an internationally unifying moment, where we share this common act with others. War and conflict are bred out of discord and division. While in the First and Second World Wars our troops fought for our own freedom, in more recent times our military have been sent to help restore peace in other countries.  General Sir Nick Carter, Head of the British Armed Forces, said over the weekend that it would be very dangerous to forget the lives lost in war “because I think what we would forget is the true horror of war and, if you forget about the horror of war, then the great risk I think is that people might think going to war is a reasonable thing to do”.

I’ve spoken previously about a sense of division within society and the growing platform for more extreme views. Covid-19 has given us a common enemy in 2020 but even if this has unified us at times, the divides I mentioned last year are still here and are at risk of growing. The Archbishop of York spoke on this theme in his remembrance sermon, which was livestreamed this weekend and is available online and I will quote one paragraph:

“As we remember all those who died because of the failures that ended in war and as we consider the growing divisions and binary arguments and fake news and hate speech that separate us from each other in our world today, how can we establish peace? And where should our allegiances lie? To those whose side of the wall we happen to share? Or to those who care for peace so much that they are prepared to tear walls down?”

While it is important to remember the sacrifices made in conflict, I hope we can also reflect on the need to unify, to find common ground and to remember our shared humanity so to avoid the terrible affects that division and discord can bring through war and conflict.   

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey