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from the Observer 11 November 2001

Euean FergusonBut how should we think of them now
by Euan Ferguson

SEAGULLS. COUGHING. Shouts, from a protest, in 1969. Chimes from a fat bell, and distant cannon-shots. These are the only noises to punctuate a strange CD, released today: a collection of two-minute silences from all the recorded Armistice Days and Remembrance Sundays which have taken place since 1919. So many millions of thoughts thought in these silences: complex and sometimes awkward thoughts, of transience and pathos and guilt and loss, and boredom, and empathetic terror,and honour, and stillness: and millions more will be thought this morning. But what, really, are we remembering?


Are we simply remembering the dead soldiers of two world wars, and their sacrifice? Is it wrong, as some have been arguing over the past weeks, to mourn, also, the civilians who have died in international conflict — and who continue to die? Was it wrong for those mourning the victims of 11 September to plant small crosses and poppies in the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey; did they disrespect the crosses, Stars of David and — yes — Muslim Crescents marking the military dead? Should we be ashamed to wear, now, a white poppy — not a sign of appeasement, but a simple plea, dating from the 1930s, that we remember, too, all the non-combatants who died in the last century?


Do we sully the slowly brilliant words, do we cheapen the intent, of Laurence Binyon's 'At the going down of the sun...' if, in the morning, we also remember those, on all sides, who never fought and yet now do not live: if we think, with stillness and imagination, of the soul of an American broker, and that of an Afghan farmer? No. This is what I will be thinking, as will others, and I do not seek to offend, for the thoughts, and the meaning, of days like today are changing, and fairly fast.


On the Sunday after 11 September I was in Normandy, visiting the American cemetery above Omaha beach, on a tearfully beautiful cold blue day. Eleven thousand white crosses stretch with impossible (and very un-French) precision as far as you can follow: to the treeline a mile off inland, towards the clifftop to the north. It was the first time, that unconscionable week, that I had any sense of what so many dead might mean: we were still talking, then, of up to 10,000 dead in New York, and I had a vision that they were the ones laid out before me. The other tourists, mainly American, were in huddles. They laid wreaths, against marble walls designed to honour the 1944 soldiers into eternity, for a new swathe of American dead. It was sweet, unforced, graceful, and it spoke with a grand serendipity; and the honour of the farmboys who died, seasick and trembling, on the beach below was in no way impugned, no more than wider thoughts of the pity of war will today impugn the men in red at the Cenotaph.


And this is not the first time the ceremony has begun to move on in the public consciousness. Wilfred Owen's conviction that any premature death through war was wrong, informed a generation, right up to Baldwin's refusal to rearm. In the introduction to the 1963 collection of Owen's poetry, C Day Lewis writes that, because of those verses, 'my generation... could never again think of war as anything but a vile, if necessary evil,' — but, as Larkin pointed out, 'that "if necessary", which would not have been necessary before 1939, shows that on the whole the implications of Owen's poems have been found unacceptable.'


The concept of a just war had been established, and Remembrance Sunday became, for the last half century, a day in which honour, and pride, could be felt instead of— or perhaps along with — pity and regret. And now, after we, the good guys, British and American, have managed to get ourselves involved in a number of distinctly unjust wars, the concept is muddied to an impossible opaqueness. We can dare to rethink Remembrance Sunday once more. We can dare to wear white poppies. We can dare, as civilians die in war more than ever before, to feel simply bereft for all the undone years. What are we remembering today? We are remembering everyone who, through war, has been delivered to a permanent silence. A silence unbroken by cough or shout, bell or cannon; eternity itself, where the sound of a single seagull's cry would make it worth the wait.

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Friday 11 February 2005