I remember Armistice Day from my childhood as a relic of an outmoded jingoistic attitude that nobody seemed to find relevant. Hardly anyone wore poppies, and nobody wanted to talk about the war. In Liverpool we were still living with undeveloped bomb-sites in the seventies, and we felt it was more than time we moved on and created something new and worthwhile.
So it seems odd to find it creeping back. I don’t think it’s altogether true that it’s some sort of plot to make our current wars seem acceptable and even noble, though I’m prepared to believe that governments are taking advantage of the phenomenon. It seems to come from somewhere else. A vague anxiety about our place in the world, a feeling that we are surrounded by people we can’t trust, and we need to believe that we can – and should – fight our way out of it.
I’m not buying it. I know that sometimes you have to fight. And sometimes you find yourself in a fight when you didn’t expect it. But mostly you don’t. Mostly there are better options you should try first. Mostly, war is the worst response you can make, the most destructive, and the most corrupting, and then you finish up having to negotiate anyway.
But today, with heroes on our minds, I am thinking of three heroes that I know, two in war-time, one in ordinary lfe.
One is Hugh Shields, a Lovat Scout in the Second Waorld War and an expert in explosives. He seems to have been in everything – Dunkirk, the D-Day landings, the Shetland Bus, helping the resistance in Norway. And then at the end he went to bring home prisoners from the Japanese prisoner-of war camps. What he saw there shocked hi. He held a six-foot soldier worn to a skeleton and light as a child in his arms as he died, and he knew than than war had achieved nothing. When the government sent him the forms to apply for his medals, he put them on the fire, and he wrote back saying ‘I have four sons, and I’m coming home to make pacifists out of the lot of them’. And he did. He took every opportunity to talk to the younger generations about the war, and encourage them to work for peace. He had alzheimers when we knew him, and his grip on the current world became more and more intermittent. But his last message was to our youngest daughter, encouraging her to keep on.
The second is Charles Rankine, who was a Japanese prisoner of war and suffered terribly. He told me how grateful he was to see the mushroom cloud at Horoshima, because he knew it meant the end of the war. Unlike Hugh, he never became a pacifist at all – in fact quite the reverse, he was often bitter. But as a mining engineer, he was forced to work on the Bridge over the River Kwai, and on one occasion he realised that the Japanese were about to do something with explosives that was going to kill people, and he warned them about it. To the end of his life he wondered if he should have done that, or if he should have let them go ahead, and sabotage the bridge. And when the camp was liberated the commander who had pistol-whipped him (among other things) came and asked for forgiveness, and Charles forgave him. And to the end of his life he wondered about that too. I always said he should, but as I get older, I realise the difficulty of those choices, and honour him.
The third is going to remain anonymous, because it’s an ongoing story and not mine to tell. But it isn’t only in war that people have to stand up for justice and discipline, and create peace and a new way of living. It’s something we have to do for ourselves in our ordinary lives, every day.