What we choose to remember and why are questions that fascinate me, particularly in relation to the World Wars. For how we think of and present the past shapes the future. It’s therefore important to keep up with national narratives and August 2020 has offered a smorgasbord of anniversaries to study. On 6th August, Japan commemorated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 14th August was South Korea’s third Japanese Military Comfort Women Victims Memorial Day remembering the women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels. And here in the UK and elsewhere, 15th August was Victory over Japan or VJ Day marking Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. For America the commemoration is actually 2nd September when the official surrender document was signed.
In spite of my on-going interest in WW2 I have known little about the war in the Far East other than Kamikaze pilots, brutal ‘Japs’ and the TV drama series Tenko shown in the early eighties about British, Australian and Dutch women held in a Japanese internment camp. I can still recall the sand-coloured heat, cruel captors and tattered dresses of sun burnt women. I of course have known more about the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, but always as primarily an American/Japanese conflict. It wasn’t until I went there last year that I learned just how involved the British had been in the whole decision-making process.
As it turns out, I am not alone in my ignorance. Aside from widespread awareness of the notorious Japanese cruelty towards those they held captive – POWs, women and children alike – and the physical and mental scars from which many never recovered, it’s a fact, the war in the Far East always played second fiddle to the western imperative of beating the Germans. Even in 1943, troops in the Fourteenth Army fighting the Japanese in Burma referred to themselves as the ‘Forgotten Army.’ Post took months to arrive, resources were limited and their battles went unmentioned in newspapers. Yet by 1945, with around 1.3 million men and women having served in it, it was the largest army not only in the Commonwealth, but the world.
I’d never heard of it. Nor did I know until yesterday that when surviving troops finally returned to the UK in 1946, they were told specifically not to talk about their war but to ‘move on’ like everybody else had been trying to do since VE Day. So, having already been overlooked while fighting some of the most ferocious battles of WW2, they were now being requested both to forget and be forgotten once again. It’s a good example of the selective nature of memory, whether personal or collective. And it highlights the importance of ‘re-membering’ the full body of a past, especially those forgotten parts that were dismembered and sacrificed on the altar of a carefully considered national narrative.
This year’s VJ Day commemorations will have educated many of us on the Pacific War not least its multi-national nature. Gurkhas, Sikhs, Indians, Australians, Canadians, Africans, Americans, Welsh, Scottish and more fought side by side, united in their shared goal of defeating Japan. The 606,000 men that made up the aforementioned Fourteenth Army commanded by General William Slim were from 20 countries speaking 40 different languages. 87% were Indian, 3% African and 10% British.
The BBC’s morning coverage of VJ Day, The Nation Remembers, reflected this beautifully through a multi-cultural programme of readings and music by British Asian actors, Indian musicians, Scottish and African soldiers. Set amongst the conveniently socially distanced trees of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and with an incessant breeze ruffling hair and dresses alike, uniformed regiments casually mingled with royal dignitaries and politicians, while elderly veterans clad in best suits and medals shuffled on the arms of descendants or sat on benches staring into the far distance. “To all who served, we thank you,” said leaders from around the world in an online video. The presenter Sophie Raworth and historian Dan Snow once again sensitively drew out memories and stories to paint pictures of almost unimaginable scenes. But it was the veterans’ determined efforts to lay a wreath or stand up for the 2-minute silence that best captured the grit and humility of their generation.
The more formal ‘Nation’s Tribute’ in the evening provided another moving, albeit more polished testament to their resilience. Hosted by Joanna Lumley – in her serious Gurkha supporter and presenter role rather than the Champagne-swigging Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous – and against a stunning backdrop of visuals projected onto Horse Guards Parade, we heard further multinational perspectives by veterans, including ‘Captain Tom’, our lockdown hero.
I could listen to them for hours but our national culture of Remembrance clearly has a remit both to entertain and make us cry. So, in keeping with tradition, military bands, glittering celebrity singers and an actually wonderful danced fight performed by knife-bearing Gurkhas punctuated the programme.
All in all, this event was less nationalistic or victorious and more inclusive than any previous ones I have seen. Maybe Covid-19, maybe the Black Lives Matter protests or maybe increased maturity has finally nudged our commemorations towards the humility of those that knew the horrific cost of war behind any victory. There was even a small injection of public self-questioning into the rightness of such contentious acts as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That’s new. And very welcome.
As always, veterans asked us to remember those that fought; to ‘appreciate the value of the freedoms we enjoy’ for which so many gave their lives; and ‘to resolve never to be involved in another war.’ Akiko Macdonald, a Japanese woman married to an English man and working with veterans on both sides, called for reconciliation: ‘Yesterday’s foe is today’s friend.’ And Prince William asked us once again ‘to learn the lessons of the past’. I have often done that too in my talks and blogs. But this year I found myself asking what ‘learning from the past’ could mean for us today?
What I have learnt from the largely overlooked war in the Far East is the importance and power of working together, of overcoming difference to unite in a common goal. If we are to successfully tackle the enormous environmental, economic and social challenges the whole world faces, we need to learn to operate as a united body. Just as the Fourteenth Army overcame the challenges of national and cultural difference, we need to see beyond and rise above all that divides us. We need to pool resources, ideas and energy for the greater good of everyone. For as General Slim recognised in his journal, it was the ‘comradeship’ within the Fourteenth Army that ultimately turned defeat into victory.
To watch the BBC coverage of the Commemorations I mention