This week we observe Remembrance day, in which we remember those who have fallen in our nation's wars. The day itself is the 11th because that was the day the First World War ended, but the nation chooses to have its main event on the Sunday preceding.
When I was much younger, Remembrance day was an intense and quiet affair. Everybody over about fifty years old had fought in either or both wars if they were a man, or had likely served themselves or lost a loved one if they were a woman. People who had lived through the War, even those who were children, were marked by it, and it showed.
I consider myself lucky to have had the last of that generation as my schoolteachers. Aside from a few enthralling anecdotes they had a perspective on education their successors lacked; there was a sense that their mission was to leave the world a better place than they found it.
The last First World War veteran died a year or two ago and those of the Second World War are starting to become thin on the ground. And as their ranks have been depleted the nature of Remembrance day has changed, not necessarily for the better. What used to be a bitter national reminder of senseless slaughter that we should never forget lest it happen again has slowly become a celebration of British patriotism, that kind of patriotism that dare I say it borders on nationalism. The act of remembering the senseless slaughter has become subsumed in an orgy of banner-lowering and Being Seen To Be There. Politicians scramble to be the first to sport a poppy, and to snipe at those they consider might have less of a True Remembrance than they do. Pacifists are scorned, as being Not Quite British Enough.
Somehow I feel we lost something along the way. Maybe we left it on the main street of Wootton Bassett.
Perhaps it's a reaction to the awkward fact that the last war we got involved in was just a bit dodgy. Battling the Nazis had a moral justification, but with dodgy dossiers and George W Bush we comprehensively let down the soldiers we sent to die in the heat of Iraq. Bitter remembrance of senseless slaughter gets a bit close to home for those in power when they are the ones who obediently trooped into the War Criminal Lobby behind their then party leader.
Or maybe it's the post-war generation's tendency to sanitise the past at work. For them The War was One Great Big Adventure serialised in countless comics, Tommy Atkins always won the day, and never had his guts shot out by a German Schmeisser. Perhaps their parents didn't talk about it enough in the 1950s, it could be again I was lucky to encounter that generation when they'd had time to come to terms with it.
One of the most committed, eloquent, and convincing pacifists I have ever met spent his war in the nose of a Lancaster bomber. He was a bomb-aimer, he pressed the button on those thousand-bomber raids over Berlin, Hamberg, Essen, and Dresden. He saw his friends die in shockingly large numbers, he saw the effect of area bombing on British cities and he saw after the war what it had done to German cities. He wore his poppy with pride, not to glorify conflict but to remind the world of its horrors.
I don't know about you, but every year since he passed away I've followed his example.