The new British way of mourning
18 July 2009
If only modern Britain were more like Wootton Bassett. That thought must have passed through many minds since the first press and TV accounts reported, a matter of weeks ago, how a small Wiltshire town has taken upon itself the sad task of honouring those killed in action when their bodies arrive home.
Every time a soldier’s coffin has returned to nearby RAF Lyneham, the townspeople have turned out on the high street to pay their respects.
It was too good a story not to grow and now the simple decency of Wootton Bassett has found its way into the international press. It has come to symbolise the fact that the ordinary citizens of a British town have recognised even in 2009 that much of what is taken for granted in our everyday lives has been earned by the blood of brave young men. To quote a line much used during the last world war: “For our tomorrow, they gave their today.”
Yet this is not quite the old-fashioned story that it may seem. The events of this week surrounding the “repatriation” of eight soldiers killed in Afghanistan suggest that what started as a small and simple tribute is becoming a more modern event in which mass emotion and the media feed off each other.
Thousands lined the streets of the town on Wednesday. Cars were parked along the roads which the procession would take. Families had taken up their positions hours in advance. There were picnics, union jacks. The press played its part too, interviewing those who had turned out for the occasion. In some weird way, the emphasis had shifted from the soldiers who had died to those who attended their homecoming. The caring British public turned out to be heroes, too.
It is as if, quite suddenly, the armed forces have come to represent the best of us as surely as other institutions – political, financial, law-enforcing, journalistic – reveal the worst. Serving officers and men, fighting and dying for a cause few understand, remind us of the way we used to be, before public servants were revealed to be as slippery and self-serving as the rest of us.
There is a desperate hunger for old-fashioned heroes – soldiers fit the bill perfectly. Not only are they tough and courageous, but they stand outside the celebrity circus, above the sordid business of politics and money-making. Compared to the dangerous, selfless work they do, the nation’s daily preoccupations – a dead pop star, a reality show scandal, expenses claims involving moats and plugs – seem tawdry and trivial.
It is quite recent, this renewed respect for the armed forces. Anniversaries marking the key events of the two world wars – Remembrance Sunday, Dunkirk, the D-Day landings – are marked with far greater solemnity and feeling than was the case a decade ago. The words and thoughts of ageing veterans have become best-selling volumes.
Even five years ago, the country’s treatment of the Ghurkas would never have become a seismic political event, let alone one which sweeps aside the normal British guardedness when it comes to matters of immigration.
The fact that none of this impinges too much on the armed forces themselves adds to the respect accorded to them. The army’s great strength is that it is tough and self-contained. It refuses to deal in the common currencies of populism and fame. Important as it is for serving soldiers to believe that the nation back home supports them, I suspect that many serving officers and men will have had ambivalent feelings about the recent outpourings of public feeling around the coffins of the fallen.
They may be right to be wary. There is an alarming whiff of mass sentimentality in some of the scenes we have seen this week. Soldiers have been dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years but until recently, these tragedies would be covered in brief, routine news items. During the session in the House of Commons when MPs gathered to express their sympathy to David Cameron after his son had died, the death of two soldiers was announced almost as an afterthought to the main story. Now, suddenly, there is a feeding frenzy.
At a time when every other public institution is distrusted, it is perhaps not entirely healthy, this new and intensely emotional attitude towards the armed forces. For a start, it can skew the way the news is presented. In the current atmosphere, it is unthinkable, should an incident of military misbehaviour be uncovered, that it would be subjected to the kind of forensic press interest that, for example, has marked coverage of police activity. The public, which drives the media on these occasions, would not want to know.
What is odd is that, behind the emotion of the moment, there is still remarkably little understanding of, and not much curiosity about, the cause for which these men have sacrificed their lives. If those applauding the coffins of dead soldiers were asked whether they really thought the soldiers had given their today for our tomorrow, few would answer with an unequivocal “yes”. The reason these men died has become less important than the fact of their death.
What matters now is how we feel, not what we think. In many ways, the wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq pose moral questions every bit as urgent as those which marked the Vietnam war 40 years ago. In retrospect, public attitudes to those fighting in Asia at that time were rather shameful. “Be the first family in your block to have your boy come home in box” was the cheerily satirical message of one of the most famous anti-war songs of the time. Famously, when veterans returned home, they were often treated as if the war was of their personal doing.
The response today could not be more different. Politics is for politicians. What matters above all is not to consider the war and its reasons but to mark individual grief and loss, and to share in it. “We need to let them know their sacrifice means something to people, that they’re not out there for nothing,” the Mayor of Wootton Bassett has said.
The response of the people of his town has been generous and open-hearted, but the death of brave soldiers is too important to become an excuse for another media-orchestrated festival of great British caring.