Losing a generation

I am locked out, sitting on a cold step in my running gear with no money. So I thought I would write something to distract me a little. It’s a little musing on an observation, rather than a developed argument.

Something has struck me on a few occasions, and particularly when attending Remembrance Sunday to support my grandfather-in-law. Britain, and much of the developed world, is in the process of losing touch with the hardness of life for previous generations, and especially the impact of wars.

Our cultural memory is informed by the experiences of the older generations. Our oldest generation in Britain, and much of there developed world, is that which fought in World War 2, or grew up in the direct aftermath. We are lucky enough not to have had major conflicts so close to home, or that have had such an impact on us, and it is this safe society that we inhabit today.

In a few short years we will be a society for whom war is largely an abstract idea, something we do to others that affects the economy. I have no idea what it feels like to kill someone, to know others want to kill you, and to witness first hand the destruction war causes. For this I am glad.

I am concerned this intergenerational forgetting leaves us impoverished in several ways.

Firstly, we owe it to people that served to remember and honour them. I do not always agree with the direction given to the forces, but am astonished by the bravery and fortitude needed to carry it out. These people put their lives on the line and endured hardships I cannot envisage. Their stories should be remembered, often as heroes, occasionally as villains.

Second, I am concerned that a failure to understand the realities of conflict at  home allows us to become blase. Decisions to use military force should be made in light of the damage it will cause. If we don’t have an appreciation of what the experience of war is like, I am not sure how we can evaluate this properly.

Finally, as we lose the people that experienced historic moments, we risk losing the lessons they learned. The study of history as an academic subject is both interesting and useful, but is still not comparable to first hand experience.

So what can we do? The inexorable march of time means we will always lose those that remember events. But this generation, for the first time really, can document and save things in any of a huge number of formats. Scan in your grandparents photographs, write down the songs they remember, and record their stories.

Most importantly, remember what they learned and how learned it – the world used to be a much harder place to live in, and knowing that should be reason enough to continue to make it better. This is the most comfortable, safe and lucky generation ever, and it is built on the work of our forebears.

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