Thursday, November 4, 2010


Armistice Day. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month . The end of war in Europe

Remembrance Day is a big deal here in England. Weeks before November 11th, people begin wearing little red (and sometimes white) paper poppies as a sign of solidarity and remembering of those who were lost in the two Great Wars. It sweeps through the country, and all of sudden people are pinning poppies to their jackets and blazers, churches have displays where you can buy a poppy and there is a greater awareness of those who serve in uniform. It’s a different sentiment than how we celebrate Veterans’ Day in America.

Firstly, there is an awareness that Remembrance Day is not about the military in a narrow sense. It is about all people who died in wartime. Britain was bombed, and many, many civilians lost their lives during the blitzkrieg. Civilian nurses, aid workers and chaplains died throughout the Western front. Families were destroyed. Life was changed forever. Remembrance Day is about all the lives lost, both those who served in uniform and those who did not.

Secondly, there is still a major focus on the World Wars. They had a lasting impact on Britain – and Europe more broadly – that we just can’t fathom across the Atlantic. Pearl Harbor was horrible, but it doesn’t even come close to the kind of devastation places like Britain, France and Germany faced. It is a devastation that echoes in the land. It is real. It is tangible and you can still feel it. November is a gloomy month which ushers in the grey chill of winter. It is windy, cold and uninviting. It is the saddest season. How appropriate, then, that Britain pauses to stand in mournful awareness, in sober acknowledgement of the destructive power of the human will.

Unlike in America, where we parade around our veterans, celebrating their efforts and applauding their service, Remembrance Day is not about nationalism, but about history. In America, we invite veterans and soldiers to wear their uniforms to church, we sing nationalistic hymns, and we tip our hats to those who died “serving our great nation.” It’s bittersweet – the tart memory of the Vietnam War and the massive loss of life and unraveling of the American dream still fresh. It isn’t a long distance echo, but a clear current cry that we face in America. So, we dress it up, we celebrate the sacrifice and we forget just how devastating war is. We laud the uniformed but forget the many who died as unintended causalities of war. We turn a day of somber remembering  into an opportunity to be patriotic.

Perhaps this differing indicates a deeper chasm between America and Britain. It certainly shows the differing impact of the world wars for Europe than for America. It shows a gap in values, in emotional responses and, I think, in how we understand our relationship to both our country and our military. One isn’t better than the other; they are expression of the unique situations, experiences and personalities of the two countries. It just serves to remind me how different the world is.  

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