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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Another way of looking at D-Day

It's the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings tomorrow and already the BBC is getting itself in Greatest Generation mode, as is the style nowadays.

I wonder what my dad would say if he heard the awed tone today's broadcasters adopt when they get to touch the hem of some veteran's garment. Not that my dad exactly went ashore with the first wave. He was a lowly private in the R.E.M.E. and as such was probably changing a fuse somewhere in Catterick on June 6th 1944. My mother was catching rats in Lincolnshire with the Women's Land Army. My uncle Joe was in his second year in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, having been swept up in the fall of Singapore. The rest of my aunts and uncles were in reserved occupations, teaching or farming their way through the war, in most cases far away from the bombs. One aunt had a short period in the Wrens but suffered from sea sickness. At least that's what she would say.

None of them talked about it as I was growing up and nobody talked about anyone being a hero, not even when they were talking about Ernest, who worked for my dad and had been in the Desert Rats. This wasn't because they had seen things so terrible they didn't wish to be reminded of them. It was because they had a variant of survivor's guilt. You might call it survivor's embarrassment. They'd never fired a shot in anger. They wouldn't have known how to. Even my uncle Joe, who was taken prisoner, was in the Signals.

I was talking to Mark Ellen recently about his dad, a young paratrooper who lost a leg thanks to an enemy mortar in Normandy.  Even brave young men like him were acutely aware that they spent most of the war safely in their barracks before making a brief contribution to what we would nowadays call "defeating fascism", the value of which is impossible to weigh and the impact of which was entirely personal. Again, survivor's mild embarrassment.

Most people who served in the war, on whatever side, didn't crack codes or storm cliffs or fly Spitfires. They just served. It was boring and entirely inglorious but it was service. That should be enough to deserve our respect.

I just heard an interviewer poke a microphone at a veteran and ask him what it was like on the landing crafts. "My generation can't imagine that, " she gushed. Actually, I think maybe we can. What we really can't imagine is the service.