Yesterday was Armistice Day, the celebration of the end of the Great War (or, as we Americans call it, WWI). British culture was profoundly changed by WWI, as I learned from watching an episode of Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain. It is fascinating to see how an entire country's social mores were turned upside down by the war, and how imagery from that time has pervaded other cultures as well - including our own. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? Yup, started here. A general was blindfolded and he chose one of 4 caskets to select a body who would represent all of the unknown war dead. Uncle Sam needing you to fight? Yup - the original was General Robertson (who had a pretty amazing moustache).
Somehow, we don't really "do" Armistice Day in the US. Americans call it Veterans Day, and celebrate those who fought and made it, rather than remembering the end of a particular war. Every year on 11/11, there is a moment of silence at 11am in the UK; some lucky Americans get 11/11 off, but not much else goes on to pay tribute to a war that wasn't so long ago but seems very far away. The British go several steps further, as well; Rememberance Sunday is the Sunday before Armistice Day, and that is the time to remember those who fell during all of the wars. During the weeks up to the two days of remembering, nearly every Brit buys a poppy to wear on their person - the poppies are sold by the Royal British Legion to raise money for soldiers currently serving. The poppies are to symbolize the flowers growing in Flanders where some of the heaviest battles of WWI took place, and were referenced in a poem by John McCrae.
The dedication of British people to their soldiers fighting both here and abroad, past and present, is really quite extraordinary and inspirational. But like anything, it can be perverted. My heart went out to Gordon Brown when he weathered a storm of criticism over the past week for misspelling the name of a serviceman in a letter of condolence to the soldier's mother. He apparently writes a personal message to the family of every slain British soldier. In this case, he went on to call the woman to apologize, and she used the phone call as an opportunity to attack him for his bad manners - and then linked it to a tabloid newspaper. Gordon Brown isn't entirely the best politician ever, but he is blind in one eye, socially awkward, and apparently has infamously horrible penmanship.
Everyone knows that soldiers commit acts in war that would be inconceivable and unpardonable in civilian life, and yet we forgive them and honor their memory. Gordon Brown does the same everyday in politics, and yet all he was trying to do was to personally thank this mother for her son's sacrifice and duty. The press should give him a break - war is hard, and penmanship isn't easy - and we could all do with a bit of remembering that this is one country, united for peace rather than divided by politics.