What’s war remembrance really for? To remember the fallen… Or to prepare us for the next time?

What’s war remembrance really for? To remember the fallen… Or to prepare us for the next time?

Bradford Cenotaph (Photo Peter Nias)

Peter Nias (University of Bradford)


What is the purpose of these war remembrances, both the annual November day, and the World War One centenaries?  I would argue that it’s not as straightforward as one may think.  Such commemorations conflate the memory of the fallen with that of war itself, thereby continuing the latter’s acceptance by wider society.  This is quite different from the very correct and vitally important aspect of personal remembrance by individual people for their loved ones lost in war.

The primary purposes of institutional war remembrance are twofold.   One is to remember and honour those, mainly the military, who have lost their lives in war. The other is to recognize that the country needs others to continue to offer themselves forward to fight in future.   Amongst the silences and the booming brass bands these yearly events quietly, but firmly, acknowledge the fact that military forces are, if necessary, ultimately expendable.  Their duty is the defence of the country and that must be done, even to the last person.

But does such remembrance really take us forward, not least in how we view future wars?

The variety of institutional ways in which war and those who die in major wars are remembered are well known:  Two minute silences or other occasions when nations stop to remember (dates vary between countries: e.g. May 4th Netherlands, November 11th UK, November 16th Germany, end of May USA, Japan 15th August, Okinawa 23rd June); War memorials, with annual public parades and religious services across the country attended by national and local dignatories as well as the military, both past and present; Church services where the names of the fallen may be read out; The sale of red poppies in the UK to give financial help to former military people.

However, there are other ways in which war and the effects of war are remembered.  Some of these, subtly and not-so-subtly, glorify war, and some condemn it; Films, including commercial war films (both war and ‘anti-war’), documentaries  and official histories; Poems – for example, Wilfred Owen – and books – for example, Stalingrad;  Official war artists –  for example, Paul Nash; War museums and regimental museums, the latter often being thinly disguised recruiting agencies; Monuments and sculpture, including also the remnants of buildings, such as the bombed   Coventry Cathedral, and the Hiroshima ‘dome ’(a ‘world heritage’ site); Oral history, especially but not only in societies without a written tradition (a  variation of ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ Mummy too); War as a calendar of time (‘it was in pre-war times’, the ‘post-war’ baby boom,); Military music and drama (The Dam Busters March); in the naming of hospitals, schools and/or streets after battles; Public displays of armaments in parks, museum grounds, docks and airshows.

I suggested above that the primary purpose of institutional war remembrance is to counteract the fact that the military, and perhaps others too, are ultimately expendable.  The reasoning is something like this: Suppose you are a public relations consultant, designing a campaign to recruit for a job that could result in the applicants being killed, what would you do? What better idea than to make national heroes or martyrs of them (‘their names liveth for evermore’, ‘The Glorious Dead’).   The subliminal message is that if you die in future wars, you will be remembered as a hero.  A kind of post-dated comfort thought, including for current and future parents, but also for the nation as a whole.  The underlying remembrance message to the country is that the military is ready for the next sacrifice.

The military, through its formal war remembrance, handles death of their own quite well.  But what does this formal war remembrance – in any country – have problems with, or omit altogether?

What the military and other institutions do not handle well are the wounded.  They may get excellent medical treatment, but they are an embarrassment, even more so than the dead, because they tell dreadful stories.  The mentally wounded especially are rarely publicly acknowledged.  We may have come only a little way from recognizing the ‘shell shocked’.  For example, it took until 2001 for the UK military to formally remember those soldiers, some of whom were shell shocked, who were executed in World War One for refusing to obey orders (now memorialized by the statue ‘Shot at Dawn’ at the National Memorial Arboretum).    

In a multicultural world, war remembrance also needs to culturally catch up. The national remembrances for sacrifices in war have for too long, in the UK and elsewhere, not recognized the differences between Christian and non-Christian, or the civilians and military, or the main country and its allies.  Changes have and are being made, but only grudgingly. Some war memorials are selective by race.  One in Maseru, Lesotho, southern Africa, names whites who died but then only says ‘….and 29 native soldiers’)

What about remembering the civilian ‘enemy’ who died in war?  Surely they are the ‘collateral damage’ whom we all should be remembering? The problem is that with the ‘total wars’ of the 20th century not only are they seen as ‘enemy’, but also that remembering them means acknowledging war crimes – such things as terror bombing of the populations and of dams.

Then there is the entreaty, ‘love your enemy’.  Remarkably, there has been a step forward in this regard.  When both the UK forces and the military enemy who died in the Falklands war were remembered by Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie in his sermon in 1982, he was vilified by many.  However, twenty one years later, after the Iraq war in 2003, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams remembered all the military and civilian dead in his Iraq Service sermon in St Paul’s Cathedral. This time there was quiet agreement.  That was progress, after a fashion.

Atrocities are committed by all sides in wars.  Part of the purpose of war remembrance, I would say, is to be the carpet under which those atrocities are brushed, both of the winners and sometimes of the losers.  By remembering and making heroes of the dead, one is then less likely to think of, or care about, the atrocities done by the living.   Should we now also acknowledge atrocities by our own side in our formal war remembrance services?

Conscientious objectors who died in war (some did frontline medical work, others did bomb disposal) are not remembered.  It is arguable that somewhere in war remembrance there should be space for the pacifist ideal, which maintains that people can rise above the mockery of warfare.  A good opportunity will be in March 2016 at the centenary of the introduction of conscription in the UK.

The Cold War is not formally remembered at all as such, even though many died as a result across the world.  Should this be incorporated in some way?

The remembrance of civil wars or civil conflict within countries is more difficult, not least because it is often brother against brother (and sister).  But it needs to be tackled.  Perhaps remembrance through the creation of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is one way forward in such situations.

To conclude these challenges of war remembrance as it is currently practiced, I would say:

Whilst we all – worldwide – need war remembrance, we really need to acknowledge and rethink how we practice such thoughts.  Former BBC reporter Ted Harrison’s book, Remembrance Today, is well worth reading in this regard, including his suggestion of excluding UK national politicians from their wreath-laying places at the Cenotaph. Only then can we start to really reflect on war, what happens in war and what war does to people.

I’ve mentioned how the formal Remembrance Day in the UK has very slowly become a little more inclusive in who and what it remembers.   However, it still doesn’t really start to look forward to a war-free future, despite the oft-repeated but sadly negated ‘never again’ messages.

Also, the trend in the UK has been to increase institutional remembrance.  Originally, after World War One there was just Armistice Day, observed on whichever day it fell. After World War Two it was moved to the nearest weekend and named Remembrance Sunday.  Since the mid-1990’s Armistice Day has been resurrected and we now commonly have public services on both days, unless they coincide. Then, in 2001, the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire was opened, and in 2006 the annual Armed Forces Day started. In contrast, the Dutch look forward as well as back.  In The Netherlands, May 4th is Remembrance Day and May 5th is Liberation Day, with the latter building for the future, using such as social, economic and cultural aspects of freedom.

As a small start, in the UK, how about using these words (from Rowan Williams’s sermon on Wed 11th Nov 2009 at Westminster Abbey, at the Service to mark the Passing of the World War One Generation) in all remembrance services:

“In our solemn remembrance to those who have died, may we learn the lessons they learned, and God save us from learning them in the way they had to.”


Peter Nias is Honorary Visiting Research Fellow, Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK. He was formerly at The Peace Museum, Bradford.