As the nights draw in and the leaves tumble from the trees, our thoughts turn to those who have themselves fallen in the service of our country. We remember the sacrifice they have made. And we honour their memory.
We just don’t do it very well.
As our national day of remembrance approaches, the poppies start to appear. Parades take place across the land. Services are held. Wreaths are laid. And then we go home and get on with our lives, our duty done.
And that’s what concerns me. Participation in this collective act of mourning has become something that is expected of us. But it has also become a sufficient act in its own right. Wear a poppy or be unpatriotic. But wear a poppy and it’s job done.
Remembrance, however, is about much more than this.
Nearly three quarters of a million members of the British armed forces were killed in World War One. And more than a quarter of a million more died in the Second World War. Since then, we have suffered casualties in, to name but a few, Vietnam, Malaya, Korea, Aden, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Balkans and the Gulf.
More recently, 456 British forces personnel or MOD civilians died while serving in Afghanistan. And a further 179 perished in Iraq. More returned home with horrendous injuries that will remain with them for life. And an unknown number will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
It’s right to honour those who serve our country. But let’s do it properly.
We can start by thinking much more carefully before we send our fighting men and women into harm’s way. I would love to live in a world where we don’t need an army, a navy or an air force. Sadly, we don’t. Though I can’t help but think that our politicians would be much less gung-ho if they had to lead the charge.
Whether it’s for a peacekeeping mission in Africa or something more aggressive in the Middle East, our armed forces play a vital role. But when we call upon these brave souls to do their duty, let us please be damned sure that we know what we’re doing. And that it’s worth the sacrifice we’re asking them to make.
We must also never again send our troops into battle without the skills, the kit and the support that they need to get the job done. Expecting soldiers to patrol the IED-ridden roads of Afghanistan in lightly-armoured Land Rovers designed for duties in Northern Ireland was nothing short of negligent. And the shortage of helicopters in Iraq, as well as of individuals sufficiently skilled in intelligence-gathering and communications, undoubtedly cost lives.
Most importantly of all, though, we need to make sure that we do right by our servicemen and women when they return. And by the families of those who do not.
I’m not denigrating the work of the Royal British Legion and others, because they do great things. And because I really don’t want my house to be picketed by a platoon of old boys in berets and blazers. But I find it profoundly distressing that we rely so much on charities and donations to support our military veterans.
When we send our young men and women into battle, we have a moral obligation towards them, whether their scars are visible or not. They risk their lives for us, what Lincoln called the ‘last full measure of devotion’. We owe them far more than a quid for a cardboard flower.
So wear a poppy if you wish. Go to a service. Lay a wreath. But please don’t feel that by doing so you have done your bit.
Note: I first published this in November 2016. I looked back over it today, with the aim of using it as inspiration for something to write in the run up to remembrance day this year. But it still sets out exactly what I want to say. So here it is again.