Leading article: These poignant symbols of the endless agonies of war

Share

The symbolism of tomorrow's Remembrance Day ceremonies promise to be even more poignant than usual. The poppies of northern France became an emblem of the Great War thanks to John McCrae's composition of these lines commemorating the dead:

"In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row."

The Queen, the Prime Minister and various dignitaries from around the Commonwealth will lay wreaths representing the crimson flowers at the Cenotaph on Whitehall to honour the hundreds of thousands of Britons and imperial subjects who died in that conflict.

But look closer at those wreaths and one can see another, more contemporary, battle reflected in their scarlet hue. More poppies today grow in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world. And this is the country in which 7,700 British soldiers are fighting – and dying – to support the administration of President Hamid Karzai. Eighty-three UK troops have been killed in the country since 2001. The latest died yesterday in a road accident. We also learnt yesterday that our military commitment has been extended in length.

Of course, in Afghanistan poppies have a very different significance than they do here in Britain. Poppies represent this ravaged country's only significant cash crop. The opium made from Afghanistan's poppy seeds feeds the world's heroin addiction. Yet one of the responsibilities of our soldiers in Afghanistan is to destroy the poppy crop.

This has little to do with helping Afghanistan. It is to cut the supply of heroin to the developed world. Afghans are understandably aggrieved at this. The insurgents of the Taliban have exploited this sense of injustice and used the tacit sympathy of the local population in the south to mount effective attacks on British troops. Across Britain tomorrow, our dead servicemen and women will be commemorated with poppies. In Afghanistan they will be dying because of the flowers.

So when the two-minute silence begins at the 11th minute of the 11th hour tomorrow, we must remember not just those who died serving their country in past conflicts, but also contemplate those who are risking their lives today in Afghanistan. We must also reflect on the plight of the 5,000 servicemen and women still stationed in the south of Iraq.

In some respects, the experience of the soldiers of the Western Front would be unrecognisable to today's servicemen and women in Middle Eastern and south Asian conflict zones. There are no mass charges into no man's land, no poison gas attacks. Men are no longer shot for cowardice. And, mercifully, the casualty rates in Basra have been far lower than witnessed on battlefields such as the Somme. But not everything has changed. There has been trench warfare in Afghanistan. And, of course, both sets of soldiers would be able to swap stories about the deficiencies of their political leaders.

Yet that human link with the past grows ever more frail with each passing year. There are just five known British veterans of the Great War still alive. Our living connection with the terrible carnage and human waste of the First World War has almost been broken. But we have ample means to remember. Technology has enabled us to record the testimonies of those who served. The internet allows families to research relatives who served. Veterans will die, but their stories and histories will live on. And, of course, we have the destruction and slaughters of the present to remind us of the endless agonies of war. If we forget, it will be because we have chosen to, not because our memories will have failed us. There can be no excuses.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Hang on – that’s not how it’s supposed to be written

Guy Keleny
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test