by Zoë Sharp
As I write this, today is Wednesday, November 11th – the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Armistice Day. Remembrance Day. This morning I was in my local supermarket, in a hurry, a thousand things on my mind, buying some flowers for my mother’s birthday. And just as I reached the head of the queue, there was an announcement.
“It’s coming up to eleven o’clock on November eleventh,” said the voice over the Tannoy. “We will now have two minutes’ silence.”
At the Cenotaph, one would expect that. The Menin Gate, definitely. But Sainsbury’s?
The checkout staff stopped scanning items. The customers stopped wandering the aisles. We stood in companionable quiet, without impatience, without agitation, for two minutes.
And then the checkouts lit up again. The murmur of conversations restarted, the rattle of the trolley with the squeaky wheel that I always seem to pick, the mewling of a small child who’d been, until then, strangely silent. (I understand that holding tight onto their nose often has that effect.)
I suddenly remembered a chain email I received from a friend last week. Confession time. I hate those chain emails. I mean, really hate them. They’re usually so full of saccharine sweetness that I go into a diabetic coma just reading the subject line, never mind the contents. Bah, humbug, yes indeed. I don’t respond well to emotional blackmail.
But this one was different.
These are not my words. I don’t claim them to be. I don’t even vouch for their accuracy, only their sentiment. And if anyone knows to whom they should be credited, I’ll gladly add their name into this post.
“The annual Poppy Appeal commenced on October 28th.
“The average British soldier is 19 years old … he is a short-haired, well built lad who, under normal circumstances is considered by society as half man, half boy. Not yet dry behind the ears and just old enough to buy a round of drinks but old enough to die for his country – and for you. He’s not particularly keen on hard work but he’d rather be grafting in Afghanistan than unemployed in the UK . He recently left comprehensive school where he was probably an average student, played some form of sport, drove a ten year old rust bucket, and knew a girl that either broke up with him when he left, or swore to be waiting when he returns home. He moves easily to rock and roll or hip-hop or to the rattle of a 7.62mm machine gun.
“He is about a stone lighter than when he left home because he is working or fighting from dawn to dusk and well beyond. He has trouble spelling, so letter writing is a pain for him, but he can strip a rifle in 25 seconds and reassemble it in the dark. He can recite every detail of a machine gun or grenade launcher and use either effectively if he has to. He digs trenches and latrines without the aid of machines and can apply first aid like a professional paramedic. He can march until he is told to stop, or stay dead still until he is told to move.
“He obeys orders instantly and without hesitation but he is not without a rebellious spirit or a sense of personal dignity. He is confidently self-sufficient. He has two sets of uniform with him: he washes one and wears the other. He keeps his water bottle full and his feet dry. He sometimes forgets to brush his teeth, but never forgets to clean his rifle. He can cook his own meals, mend his own clothes and fix his own hurts. If you are thirsty, he’ll share his water with you; if you are hungry, his food is your food. He’ll even share his lifesaving ammunition with you in the heat of a firefight if you run low.
“He has learned to use his hands like weapons and regards his weapon as an extension of his own hands. He can save your life or he can take it, because that is his job – it’s what a soldier does. He often works twice as long and hard as a civilian, draws half the pay and has nowhere to spend it, and can still find black ironic humour in it all. There’s an old saying in the British Army: ‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined!’
“He has seen more suffering and death than he should have in his short lifetime. He has wept in public and in private, for friends who have fallen in combat and he is unashamed to show it or admit it. He feels every bugle note of the ‘Last Post’ or ‘Sunset’ vibrate through his body while standing rigidly to attention. He’s not afraid to ‘Curse and Create’ anyone who shows disrespect when the Regimental Colours are on display or the National Anthem is played; yet in an odd twist, he would defend anyone’s right to be an individual. Just as with generations of young people before him, he is paying the price for our freedom. Clean shaven and baby faced he may be, but be prepared to defend yourself if you treat him like a kid.
“He is the latest in a long thin line of British Fighting Men that have kept this country free for hundreds of years. He asks for nothing from us except our respect, friendship and understanding. We may not like what he does, but sometimes he doesn’t like it either – he just has it to do. Remember him always, for he has earned our respect and admiration with his blood.
“And now we have brave young women putting themselves in harm’s way, doing their part in this tradition of going to war when our nation’s politicians call on us to do so.
“We will remember them.”
And at the bottom of the email were these final words:
“I wouldn’t dream of breaking this chain. Would you?”
So, although I know my day to post this week is a day late for the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but how could I not put these words out there, in the best way I know how, when called upon to do so? Especially as my own main protagonist is ex-British Army, and military or former military characters litter the pages of our novels.
So, ’Rati – this day or any day – who do you want to remember?
I want to remember my friend Billy. Billy didn’t die overseas, he died on his way back from a weekend at Bragg with some of his friends from when he was full time. I think he was in the reserves at that point, but I’ve heard you’re never truly "out" once you’ve been in. He stopped to help someone push their car out of a ditch, and had an aneurysm. He died trying to help, which says more to me about our men and women in the military than anything I could ever be eloquent enough to think of.
I’m very blessed to never have lost a friend or loved one that I am close to to combat. But I worry a lot about former students and guys who played lacrosse for me that are in country (or "downrange", or whichever term for it you choose) right now.
There’s a sentiment that is often falsely attributed to Voltaire, that I always paraphrase when it comes to people I know in the military, because unfortunately there are SO many who take their freedom for granted, and even stoop so far as to show open disrespect to the military men and women who fight to preserve those people’s right to do so. ‘They may not agree with a single word you say, but will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.’
If you can’t at least show respect (if not reverence, awe, and overwhelming gratitude) for that, then in my opinion you don’t deserve to live under the freedom they protect. But that’s just my opinion.
Zoë (and Jake), those are both beautiful posts. The picture painted of that British soldier and your friend Billy seem so much more real, so much more accurate, than the glossy, superficial bios we see on the news.
In the U.S., only 1/3 of one percent of the population is currently in the military. I’m in the 99 2/3% of people without a family member there. So my thoughts yesterday, and my prayers, are with my friend Donnie who is a civilian in Afghanistan, brought over because he’s a specialist in defusing bombs. Come home soon and well, Donnie.
It’s the sudden unexpected deaths that take us all by the throat.
The after-effects of conflict – like unexploded ordnance – linger long after the accords have been signed. Your friend Donnie is playing a vital role. I hope you see him safe on home ground soon.
In addition to the loss of lives, I mourn for the innocence lost as well. I know so many who have come back from this war — and others including WWII (though most of those friends have died) , the Korean and Vietnam wars — so disillusioned . . . so wounded in spirit.
It’s a theme I’ve tried to explore a little in my books, that soldiers – particularly those trained for Special Forces – do not fit easily or well back into civilian life.
And, shamefully, that so little is done to help them.
I remember them all, but specifically, I want to remember David "Bean" Sharrett, the son of my 11th grade English teacher, who died this year in Afghanistan in a friendly fire incident, and all the soldiers and their families at Ft. Hood, who should not have to be going through this. Beautifully done, Z.
Of all the senselessness of war and armed conflict, friendly fire has to be the saddest, and most bitter. A misnomer if ever there was one.
I have read the article based on the Things which are gone from the world.I like post very much as it is for the silence for the life which all have lost their life for goodness.I want to wish belated the Remember day.I want to know suggestion from others.
My thoughts are with work colleagues who are now safely home but live with the memories of Bosnia and Iraq and knowing they may be redeployed.
My thoughts are about my father – much older than my mother – who was a surgeon in WWII in a MASH unit that was the first on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He operated on thousands from the Battle of the Bulge and snipers over the Rhine – how many of those went on to live, have families and never speak of the war.
My thoughts are on my grandmother and how she could never speak of her favorite brother killed in WWI.
My thoughts are on the media of war making it all too common, background noise and to the point that people, ignorant of it all, blame people laying their lives on the line saying they hate war (who doesn’t) so they hate those who participate in it.
My thoughts are on a former colleague from years back who I saw on the news a few months back talking about his son who was killed in Afghanistan leaving behind a wife, children and an unborn baby who will never have a photo with her father.
My thoughts are on the rows of white crosses both here and abroad.
My thoughts are on the rows of dark, gray stone crosses of German soldiers who for some were not aware and simply sent on command, leaving behind mothers and fathers.
Silence often says far more than words ever could. A poor admission from someone who works with words, I know, but true all the same.
Beautifully put. I find it difficult (but not impossible, I admit) to understand the intense antipathy towards returning soldiers from unpopular conflicts. When you sign up for the military, you sign up to go where you’re sent, and obey orders when you get there – to do your duty, bravest and best as you can.
If anyone deserves our scorn, it’s the politians who make those decisions in the first place.
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