De-Naturalising War Commemoration

As we emerge from a period recalling World War One we approach the 75th anniversary of one of the crucial events of World War Two – the allied landings on the beaches of France on 6th June 1944. It is easy to assume that such commemoration is normal and constant – but as studies carried out by the University of Birmingham PhD students and staff1 have shown, these things go in waves and for long periods no such commemoration takes place. Questions also arise as to what it is we choose to remember.

There has been in recent years a revival of the annual commemoration on 11th November, usually also paired with similar commemoration of the same event on the nearest Sunday. Minute, two-minute and even three-minute silences are held in remembrance of a range of events including in memory of the mass wars of the last century and the ongoing conflicts of the current era. New charities to support former service personnel are established with names such as ‘Help for Heroes’ indicating to us how we should think about those who conduct the country’s military operations. There is a general acceptance that British troops are deserving of universal respect and honour in life and in death.

It has not always been so. The 1930s saw a widespread decline in public support for the annual commemoration of the World War One armistice. It declined faster once it became clear that another war might be in prospect. A revival of interest post-1945 did not outlive the 1950s and there was talk of abandoning the annual commemorative event during the 1960s and 1970s. The Falklands Conflict of the early 1980s saw a revival of concern as a result of the first major conflict involving British troops since the end of Empire. It was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two in 1995 that particularly revived such interest, especially as it coincided with the return of war to Europe after an absence of those 50 years. Since then the number of conflicts involving UK forces has proliferated so that we now have more troops in action in more areas of the world than at any time since World War Two.

Commemoration of specific actions such as the D-Day landings of 1944 promote and support particular sets of ideas about war. First, they serve to emphasise a focus on troops as active agents – and only they as active agents, excluding anyone else who may find themselves in the zone of fighting. The role of non-combatants is downplayed and the consequences for civilians caught in the firing line can be conveniently ignored. For us today this is useful: we can avoid having to recognize that in current conflicts the safest place to be is in the military, as current conflicts cause far more deaths among non-combatants than among fighters, and the disparity between civilian and military casualty rates is constantly growing. Second, they promote a focus on soldierly virtues such as courage and voluntary sacrifice, excluding from consideration the place of coercion in military practices, and reinforcing the trend to ignore the relative safety of membership of a military group.

As we remember with praise those who landed on the Normandy beaches in June 1944 it would serve us well to face the horrific reality of modern war and those aspects we choose not to think about.

Dr John Carman - Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage