6 November 2004

The enigma of remembrance

By Andrew Boswell

We are now in the season of remembrance of war past - a red poppy adorns the cover of this paper, and many of us wear them.

Thankfully, most of us do not have an authentic experience of war and its consequence. One person who does is Rose Gentle - her son Gordon was killed in Iraq, just a few months ago. Rose is a dynamic reminder of the cost of War - refusing for her loss to be in vain, she now campaigns for the withdrawal of our troops, despite the Government trying to prevent her.

The rest of us, not touched personally by war, cannot fathom the anguish. Gordon Gentle and 100 million others who died in the last hundred years cannot tell us.

However, most of us will have known survivors, who have been touched and damaged the fires of war. In my own family, a cousin was 'shell-shocked', now called post-traumatic stress disorder, in the Normandy landings. A young man, then, with life ahead, he never really healed, and suffered psychologically for the rest of his life, never being well enough to work. My grandfather was a doctor in the First World War, in Ypres and Gallipoli - he could never talk about his experiences of fixing those blown limb from limb.

And so, the enigma - within the enormous seasonal outpouring of pomp, glory and bravery, there is an immense silence of another reality - the reality that my grandfather couldn't share, and that my cousin was too traumatised to even bear. This silence - of the things which can't be talked about - is shared by many veterans, including many who will parade on Thursday.

The White Peace Poppy addresses the silence; it asks us to look beyond, touch the horror, and, like Rose Gentle, do something about it. Almost as old as the red poppy, it was launched in 1933 by the Women's Co-operative Guild - mothers, daughters and wives, who knew the loss of loved ones and the trauma of those who survived injured. Living under the cloud of an even greater European war, in the 1930s, they challenged people of the need for peace, and political leaders to find a better way to resolve conflict.

WWI was the 'War to end all Wars', yet it didn't. Neither did WWII, and since 1945, the world has continued to become an ever more violent and bloody place. Where previously warfare had essentially been conducted by armies, now civilians are increasingly becoming legitimate military targets - simply dismissed as 'necessary collateral damage'. Where clearly delineated 'wars' are being replaced by an ongoing culture of violence, revenge and retribution, and where the difference between 'war', 'civil war', 'terrorism' is being ever more blurred. In Iraq, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is breaking down with so-called 'civilian contractors' (mercenaries) actually often providing battlefield support services.

Whereas WWI soldiers knew the gruesome reality of blood and gore, now combatants and planners can play out actions with the unreality of video games. A particularly chilling item on Channel 4 news recently showed an airman 'taking out' a group of about 30 people in Fallijah, now believed to have been civilians -no harder than pressing the button on a video game. Given his response, the airman did not appear to really know psychologically, or with any humanity, that he had just killed tens of people.

The White Poppies and their message for a Culture of Peace (see http://www.whitepoppy.org.uk/) is so vital today. The familiar red poppies remind us all of the ongoing suffering of war veterans, who are often soon forgotten by Governments, and raise money for the Royal British Legion's welfare services. The white poppies remind us of war victims worldwide, not to forget their shrouded silence, and the vital need to find non-violent methods to resolve conflict in the future. Proceeds fund the Peace Pledge Union's educational work, and any additional funds raised locally in Norwich will this year go towards Medical Aid for Iraqi Children (Reg. Charity No. 1044222).

This year, I hope you will join me in wearing your poppies to remember the sacrifices made in previous conflicts and commit yourself to working for a future free from the scourge of war. During the twentieth century, more people died in wars than we can imagine. We can't change the past, but let's work together for a different kind of future that the white poppy symbolises.

I am grateful to Richard Bickle from Norwich and District Peace Council, who distribute white poppies locally, for providing research.