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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Time to Remember

November is a time of remembrance in Britain.

The eleventh day of the eleventh month is known as Remembrance Day, with the main observance held on the second Sunday of November, where the country remembers all those fallen men and women during two World Wars and other conflicts.

This year on Remembrance Sunday, Britain will be commemorating ninety years of remembrance since the 1918 armistice when the guns of the First World War fell silent at the eleventh hour on November 11, following four years of continuous warfare. After the end of the Second World War the day became known as Remembrance Day.

Yet today, in terms of war, it is sad to see that humanity is still living through its eleventh hour, and my critical views on warfare are all too apparent to anyone who searches this blog.

Although as a conscript I did appreciate the physical routine of my military training in Cyprus, I will ultimately always be against war itself, and believe we should never forget that innocent civilians are always the first casualties of any war. I can also understand that commemorating British troops will be a very sensitive subject in parts of the world such as the old Raj of India, Northern Ireland and more recently Iraq.

However, this anniversary of remembrance for me in the main symbolises those who fought and died in the Great and the Good wars (as World War I and II have been so-called) to make their future and our present a better one.

The Western world is built on the heroism of these often unnamed soldiers, which, due to being part of the British colonies, included Turkish Cypriots in the Second World War, too. And I mark my respect for those fallen by wearing a poppy for the occasion.

An Appeal Not to Forget

Wearing my poppy with pride for Remembrance Day
Wearing my poppy for the Poppy Appeal
This special day is also known as Poppy Day, because it is traditional to wear an artificial poppy. They are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity dedicated to helping war veterans and, when possible, I always make sure I publicly display a poppy for World War vets on that day, because I believe that real heroes should be celebrated.

The word "hero" has become a cliché in our times, too often used in fantastical plots and soulful song lyrics. However, we need look no further for our heroes than to that part of our society we sometimes fail to see, simply because they have passed the baton of society's upkeep to the next generation so gracefully.

They are our real heroes: the grandfathers and grandmothers who went to war, but we might never know it, because you see real heroes never mention the word itself. They don't see themselves as heroic; they don't regard themselves as having done anything but their duty.

Most of these brave men and women that came home after the wars never spoke or boasted about their courageous acts to their families. They let history speak for them, because only those who pay the real price of war can understand its true cost. As the historical military figure the Duke of Wellington is once supposed to have said, there is nothing sadder than battles lost and won because the penalty to life and human dignity are so high.

This issue always reminds me of an old Turkish tale set in the time of the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, when a joint British Empire and French operation was mounted to capture the Ottoman Empire's capital of Constantinople (which was renamed Istanbul a decade later in 1926), and secure a sea route to Russia during the First World War.

Young boys from both empires were sent from the bosom of their families and their homes to fight in the trenches against an enemy they did not understand, and the victory the Turks secured by not allowing the allied forces to pass was almost no victory at all. The only immediate victory was the courage of the boys sent to war, given up by their families to an horror almost unimaginable today, to become men in the battlefields. It was a courage driven by the promise of returning home to live in peace, even if it was in a world that would be changed forever.

And it was into that horror it is said a Turkish mother sent her son, but only after branding his head with the henna dye. So the story goes, when his army friends teased the boy about his coloured hair, he wrote home to his mother to complain and to ask why she had done this. The woman replied that it was a village tradition to henna young lambs sacrificed for God, and she had sent her son to be sacrificed for their country.

No one understood this sacrifice better than the leader of the Turkish Gallipoli troops Mustafa Kemal, when he wrote to the families of the allied troops to reassure them: "You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

Ironically, if Kemal had not managed to snatch this slim victory, it is possible he would have been unable to secure the platform that ultimately helped him create a new country out of the dying Ottoman Empire. In short, there might have been no modern Turkish republic as we know it today. Building Turkey on the soil of heroes is not an easy task, however, and sources claim the price he asked of his boys to "not fight, but die" would haunt him for the rest of his days.

It is because of such heroes that I wear a red poppy. Not because I agree with the wars they fought in, but rather in memory of those sons and daughters who sacrificed their lives and inspired poets during two World Wars on all sides. And even if it's only one day in November, so that we, too, might ask those in power to think twice before they send our innocent lambs to the slaughter.

Political Slaughter: Obama's Historic Victory

November will also be a time of remembrance for America, too.

From the greatest wars on earth to the greatest political show on earth, America has voted for a president in what increasingly has begun to feel like a world election.

Outside of America we have watched with intense scrutiny to see who will lead America after George W. Bush, because after two wars and a global financial crisis his presidency has been a long, painful public education for the world in the importance of decisions made by the United States.

In a momentous day, presidential candidate winner Barack Obama may have politically slaughtered Bush's colours as the first black man to win the office, but he is picking up a poisoned chalice.

Historically he is the only US president for more than half a century to take up the role with no peace or prosperity to speak of, and change will be an arduous task. We have yet to see whether Obama can revive the American fairytale politics of Camelot and its knights single-handedly saving the world from evil, when the world feels like it needs saving from America.

Globally we have become cynical of the US, no longer believing without question its need to defend democracy and promote freedom around the world, because the legacy of Iraq stands as testament to its failure. If history does become its harshest critic, we might one day read Iraq's occupation as simply a cowboy president's knee-jerk reaction, with claims that Bush's reflexes, and not the 9/11 attacks alone, eventually set world peace back at least a century.

Whatever we might come to believe, however, at its bottom red line it's a war that shames the lessons we should have learned from two World Wars, both in which incidentally America stepped up to the plate a little too late.

But, more practically for today, is the burning question concerning how everyday Americans will react to the first black "First Family" in the White House. If Obama's appointment has been a public knee-jerk reaction to Bush, could an Obama failure in office then create an even more dangerous reaction?

Obama's term must succeed, otherwise at worst the door could shut for a generation or more on any other man or woman of colour to run for top office, and no one can guess what opposing leader to Obama America has the power to conjure up.

Moreover, a successful term in office for Obama could break many stereotypes, allowing the new president to light a fire that will burn bright across America for decades to come. Or, if Obama becomes too focused to stretch America too much, at the very least it could signal a warning to far-right hard-liners in the US that politicians like Bush, who go too far, will only force mainstream thought to drastically swing the other way.

But Obama needs his policies to light a flame of long-lasting memory in the hearts of his fellow Americans to be able to say "never again". He needs to be a constant dawn, a reminder of the approaching dark, because, however unfairly, Americans are often cited for their short-term memory, even if this is one election day that they will never forget.

Although to come full circle, the fallibility of short-term memory is not exclusive to the Americans. The bitter irony has not escaped me that ninety years on we still have the need of a Remembrance Day in Britain, too.

It's the excruciating twist to this human tale: when we try so hard to live up to the ideal to remember, we can so often forget it.

Read more: The War In Iraq | Mustafa Kemal Atatürk | My Say >>

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