Remembrance: penitence or pageantry?

By Jill Segger
November 11, 2012

“All war represents a failure of diplomacy.” Tony Benn's words are no less true for being so widely and frequently repeated. That the failure brings immeasurable suffering which cascades down through the generations, is beyond dispute.

Remembering all who have died and those who must live with deformed bodies, mangled psyches, ruined lands and an inheritance of hate, is something we should never neglect. But the manner in which we commemorate the devastation caused by generations of collective failure should never be permitted to become an area beyond criticism.

All the ceremonies which have taken place today are strongly military in tone. They focus on those who have died in military action and are expressed in the pageantry, which, though subdued for the occasion, is part of the military tradition. The language used changes little and relies heavily on what might be called 'good bad poetry' - memorable because it is essentially designed to ring in the ear with a strong and immediate effect on the emotions. “At the going down of the sun”, “they grow not old”, “for your tomorrow, we gave our today” - all these have become so much part of the fabric of remembrance that we have perhaps ceased to listen beyond the sonority, to think past the comfortable, quasi-religious cadences to the reality of the the futility and waste of war.

If we would remember with integrity, we need to acknowledge the failure which is at the root of war. Penitence would seem a better atmosphere with which to surround the ceremonies of remembrance than the current rituals which tend more towards a celebration of militarism than an honest and humble reflection on the horror of war. It is worth remembering what Harry Patch, the 'last Tommy' had to say: “It's all show-business”.

When politicians and religious leaders approach the cenotaph with ashes on their foreheads; when military personnel are willing to march without regimental honours, insignia of rank or any of the glittering accoutrements of military celebration, then perhaps we will truly honour all the dead – military and civilian – and begin to acknowledge our collective culpability for that failure which is the 'pity of war'.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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