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from the Guardian 10 November 2001

The last wordThe last word on Remembrance
by AC Grayling

Spartan mothers sent their sons to battle with the words, “Return either with your shield, or on it" - meaning: come back victorious or come back dead. That was the spirit that made Diogenes the Cynic go about in the brilliant noon sunshine of Athens with a lit lantern, saying, "I am looking for a man; I saw some boys in Sparta once", thereby drawing invidious comparisons.

Despite their robust attitudes, the mothers of Sparta certainly mourned when their sons came back on their shields. When men died on behalf of their own, especially in defending against an aggressor, they truly earned the right of remembrance, which is the utmost a community can offer those who gave themselves in its service. The opposite is no mere dereliction; to forget the gratitude owed to someone who put his body between you and the violence of an enemy is a culpable thing.

Such is the aim of Remembrance Day - to think of the young men (and women) who went with songs to the battle, "straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow", as Binyon’s For the Fallen romantically claims. That poem, from which the League Ode is taken ("They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old;/Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;/At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,/We will remember them"), is moving and tender, and like many verses prompted by the monumental struggle of 1914-18, conveys with great richness the poetry and pity of war. It is engraved on thousands of memorials, which, with their flowers and solemnity, sanctify the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of service personnel - a vast army, mainly of youth—lost in the silence of the past.

And there’s the rub. This proper recollection of the dead of our wars has become an end in itself. But it should in addition be an instrument for a further and greater purpose, namely to question war itself. Which wars in history were truly worthy fighting? How did they start? Why, in general, do wars happen? What folly, greed, selfishness, madness, stupidity or wickedness causes them? How can a few fat old men who stay at home in offices send thousands of youths to be maimed and killed in the process of maiming and killing other youths? How can war ever be tolerated, still less glorified?

Everyone knows that the first world war - the source of Remembrance Day -should not have happened We sentimentally remember its dead; we should also remember the waste and horror of that futile struggle that destabiised the world and brought decades of terrible suffering in the further wars, hot and cold, that grew from it.

The second world war was fought with justification by the Allies, but there was no justification for its source, which was the viciousness of a vile ideology. Remembrance Day should therefore also be about war’s causes: ugly faiths, intolerance, lust for power and revenge, mutual hatreds prompted by historical accidents or differences of colour, custom or culture. It therefore also teaches that there are indeed times when aggression has to be countered, when bad people have to be stopped from doing worse, and when hard-won freedoms have to be defended against those who seek to impose barbarisms and oppressions in their place.

Remembrance Day has become a soft-focus event, a ritual laying of wreaths, a ceremonial marshalling of dignitaries, a parade of antipathetic politicians temporarily pretending solidarity. Nevertheless, it represents something honourable - an observance for those whose lives were shockingly abbreviated for their community’s sake - but it misses the point if it does not also instigate a hard, penetrating look at war and the meaning of war, aimed at making us resolute for peace, and as resolute in fighting when fighting is a genuinely necessary and unavoidable act of self protection. Remembrance Day would, in such circumstances, be even more pointful - not least because it is what the dead of past wars thought they were dying for.

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