Rememberance Day - Breaking Boundaries

I want to tell you what I learned in kindergarten as an impressionable 5 year old. I was taught to recite these words:

[Pledge allegiance]

Did it matter that most of us had no idea what we were saying? Many wondered about the line “and to the republic for which it stands” – who was this Richard Stanz guy anyhow?

At the time, this all seemed natural – this pledging allegiance stuff. It did not occur to me that I was stating my commitment to stand by a people and a government no matter what it might do. It was a few years later that I learned a liberal child of the sixties should not be doing such a thing – from then on, I pointedly stood in silence while the pledge was recited.

How differently might we have seen this patriotic ritual if we had remembered the original salute that accompanied the words? [Performs the Bellamy Salute]

Today is Remembrance Day and I want to explore the fine balance between honouring the fallen and the risk of falling into nationalism.

The wars that this country fought in the 20th century were monumental in scale and catastrophic in the toll they took in human lives.

Young men – and some women as well – marched off to war and returned home shattered in body and mind - if they were fortunate enough to return at all.

In her poem, Moira Michael calls them heroes, pointing to their courage. Had they been extraordinarily brave, it might have been easier, but no. They were mere mortals – not the demi-gods from whence the term hero comes. They went to war because it was essential – they fought and cowered in fear and they experienced unimaginable horror. Let us not allow ourselves the relief in memory to think of them as courageous.

This year, there has been some controversy about poppies. Will you wear a red poppy and risk identification with militarism and nationalism? Will you wear the white poppy and risk saddening or angering those who remember the loss like it was yesterday?

Will you wear no poppy and hope that everyone thinks you simply forgot?

In a recent column in the Independent, Simon Kelner talks about Remembrance Day and poppies and declares that “…people in public life …have, it seems, no choice in the matter for fear of provoking outrage.”

He titled his piece “It's Remembrance Day, not Mandatory Poppy Day.”

Remembering those who suffered and died is good and right. We should do so today and on the 11th o November and probably every day of our lives. The soldiers made a supreme sacrifice from which we benefit.

It becomes unworthy however when that remembrance becomes only about remembering ‘our’ dead and ‘our’ country.

It is easy to think of nationalism and the hostility that results from it as something that others do – an aberrant behaviour found only among right-wing groups.

Adam Zagajewski’s words suggest something different – something far more troubling – something far more true.

“I remember the blazing appeal of that fire which parches the lips of the thirsty crowd and burns books and chars the skin of cities.

I used to sing those songs and I know how great it is to run with others”

The appeal is strong. To be ‘us’ together and to shut out a ‘them’ that is different and somehow not as right and true as we is a basic human tendency. It draws us together in groups, into comfort, security, comradeship – just as it breeds mistrust and propels us headlong into collisions with those excluded others.

Moira Michael promises the dead “We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught In Flanders’ fields.” Have we?

Was the lesson we learned that we should fight and kill for our principles. Is that the lesson those suffering soldiers would speak if they could? Would they have us participating in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and perhaps anticipating hostilities in Iran?

We can not know the answer, but – with even a very imperfect understanding of what they went through in their own suffering and the suffering born of harming others – I would guess not. I would guess that they would be the first to say that nothing is worth killing over. I imagine hearing them saying try absolutely everything else first. I expect their words would urge us toward understanding, negotiation, dialogue, and peace.

I was born in a country where people really do put slogans like “my country, right or wrong” on the back of their cars. It is a country where many are prepared to shout at dissidents: “America – love it or leave it.”

Pablo Casals – the internationally renowned musician – said “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”

One of Casals’ last compositions was "Hymn to the United Nations" – the words, written by W.H. Auden speak of a world: “Where all are brothers, none faceless Others.”

Nothing I know spoke so hopefully to my generation of peace as the dream of the United Nations, and little disappoints us today as the distorted and impotent body it has become.

But we must not let the dream die along with our soldiers in Flanders’ Fields.

Today, let us remember not just our dead, but theirs. Not just the loved ones who mourn here, but there as well.

In the early days of our ancestors, joining together peacefully to form tribes with former enemies was a great step forward. At last, we could draw the circle of ‘us’ larger and have more strength to attack and defend against ‘them.’

And then we drew the circle even larger, and larger allegiances were formed. We learned to live and cooperate with more people who had been enemies and to fight every more effectively against the outsiders.

And then nation states formed and the circle of us was enlarged still more. Now, ‘us’ was reinforced with songs and flags and slogans. We numbered ‘us’ in the millions, and we learned also to slaughter ‘them’ by the millions.

At each step over many thousands of years, we learned to overcome the fear of our neighbour at the same time as we learned to hate the stranger even more and kill him more decisively.

There are two things I would have the world believe – only two. We are all sacred and we are all connected.

Whether these two statements are scientifically true does not concern me in the slightest. When we can at last live as though we believe them to be true, then the dreamed-off day will arrive when the circles merge.

I pledge allegiance to dream of the united souls of humanity.

And to the unity in which we live

One people, one in love, indivisible

With liberty and justice for all.