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

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears