The Act of Remembrance: Does Repetition Undermine Recognition?

Every year on the 11th of November at 11am, Britain band together in a two-minute silence to recognise the sacrifice made by our armed forces. This tradition began specifically to remember soldiers from the First World War, but is now used as a time to remember everyone who has served in the Armed Forces.  The Royal British Legion says that ‘Remembrance honours those who serve to defend our democratic freedoms and way of life. We unite across faiths, cultures, and backgrounds to remember the sacrifice of the Armed Forces community from Britain and the Commonwealth.’. We all understand that this is the least we can do to pay our respect to those who fought and gave the most they could possibly give to defend our rights and liberties. However, is it possible that this ritualistic ceremony is undermining its very purpose?

The first thing to understand is that the value of an action can, and often do, decrease over time. To use a trivial example to make my point, think about vocab tests. The first one I ever had in year 7 felt like a massive deal, and so I put a lot of effort into making sure it is done right. However, having at least two a week for five years somewhat diminished the importance I placed on them. Yes, I still learnt the words, but was I really thinking about my actions? No, they’d become a part of my life that I just had to do, and the importance had faded. This obviously pales in comparison to the importance of Remembrance. However, I think the point still stands. I remember one of the first times I took part in a Remembrance service; the whole affair felt foreign, and I ended really thinking about what exactly we were being silent for. But over time, especially through years 7-9, I didn’t think deeply about what had been lost in war, and what had been sacrificed so I could live the life I have. I don’t think this is a unique situation, who can honestly say that there hasn’t been a single two-minute silence in which their mind has wandered off? Professor Adrian Gregory, a senior History tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford, also makes an interesting claim- whilst it all looks like we are engaging in the same act of remembrance, you don’t know what the person next to is thinking. The repetition of actions masks people’s true thoughts and intentions, because it looks like they are fully engaged with Remembrance. I’m not arguing that none of us are treating Remembrance with the respect that it is due, but just suggesting that during the service it might be worth checking with yourself that you really are thinking about the sacrifice of the Armed Forces, and consequently the liberties we maintained. Don’t allow your engagement in the physical act of Remembrance to act as a mask obscuring what you’re actually thinking about.

The other flaw I see in Remembrance is that it’s incredibly easy to move on. Because we have a set date to ‘remember’, it’s incredibly tempting to put it to one side for the rest of the year, stick on a poppy a week before, and leave it at that. Life is incredibly busy, and no one exactly has time going spare to deliberate on the nature of human sacrifice, and that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. Those of us who went on the America trip in October visited Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC, and I ended up stuck in a constant thought loop about the purpose and sacrifice of the military. That thought process isn’t healthy and moves beyond remembrance into areas of your own insecurities and fears. However, we shouldn’t think that having a quiet moment once a year constitutes the respect we ought to be giving. We allow the repeated tradition to hide the fact that a lot of the time, we don’t truly think about what we are remembering beyond the allocated two minutes.

So, what can we do? Is there a way to remember without becoming trapped in a cycle of negative thinking? One of the things I would recommend is researching a soldier, or a particular battle, before Remembrance. That way, you’ll have a specific thought to focus on in the silence, rather than the abstract nature of war, therefore making it less likely that your mind will wander. It also might be worth looking into what the money you donate for your poppy goes towards, so you have an understanding of what exactly you are supporting. Finally, I’d say talk to your friends about Remembrance. Ask them ‘What do you think about in the two-minute silence?’ and have a genuine conversation about what exactly Remembrance means.