Yesterday was Armistice Day. The day the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and we fall silent in order to remember the victims of war, and the people who served in the military. I headed to the woods.
The beautiful old oak trees in our woods have seen a lot. The very oldest saw the rise of Napoleon and his march across Europe, his retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Waterloo. Most of our trees witnessed the rise of the canals and railways, and the might of the industrial revolution. They were present as young trees when the American Civil War was in full swing, and when the British invented concentration camps in the Boer War. They saw the rise of the British Empire, and the Raj in India. I’m sure some were cut down to provide pit props for the local coal mines, and sleepers for the railways.
Some of the trees were already quite old when a totally preventable war started in 1914, when some of my great uncles never came home from France, or from Iraq, or fell victim to zeppelin raids in London. And from that preventable war came another one – the rise of the Nazis in Europe. For it was the punitive settlement visited upon Germany at the end of the first war that led to the conditions in which the tyrant could rise to power. The trees saw it all.
In our woods we have a mysterious bunker lined and topped with concrete slabs – we think this was probably a weapons cache for the British Resistance, to be used in the case of an invasion. It makes the whole thing real. The trees were there when that pit was dug, the weapons cached and finally removed.
So I sat quietly under the tree and remembered. And I thought that the problem with the way we remember is our memories are too short. We remember only the soldiers who died, not the reasons why they went to war in the first place. We fail to learn from the same mistakes made time and time again. We fail to learn that if you leave people powerless, poor, disenfranchised and disillusions, you will create the conditions in which tyranny can take seed, grow and develop into a tree of its own. We fail to see that it is possible to have a win-win – that you don’t always have to have a competition in which there must be losers. We fail to control the grab for resources and grab for power. So we forget, and send more generations to war.
Remembrance is about much more than standing quietly, much more than the armed forces, much more than the victims of war. It is about making sure that war does not happen again. We forget that bit, and allow tyranny to rise by allowing people to be forgotten, their views to be ignored, and tyrants to take advantage of their dissatisfaction. We do a disservice to those who fought and died, and the civilians slaughtered in their millions, if we fail to learn, and forget the minute the poppy comes off our coat for another year. We talk about heroism all the time, but we forget why it was needed. We allow it to be needed again and again.
The trees have seen it all, the endless cycle repeating and repeating over and over. We have to take the long view, have to be more like the trees, and have to really remember. But we don’t. We never do.