Amid the commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice signing and having myself listened to the sermon given by the former Bishop of London, the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Richard Chartres from the Royal Hospital Chelsea on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning I found myself being particularly moved by the emphasis and reflection that he placed saying that ‘it is up to each and every one of us to ensure that we play a part in ensuring future generations, our children and our grandchildren never have to do what our forefathers did for us in the Great War’.
The Act of Remembrance is something that my own immediate post-war generation and those senior to me who may well have fought at some point during the Second World War and later conflicts do with both pleasure and emotion from a position of service, respect and humility. As Bishop Chartres noted in his sermon, the past for each and every one of us is what shapes our future and because we know and understand the huge sacrifice made by others so that we may live in freedom, we continue to believe that each year at this time it right to remember not only those that gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for us in past wars and all those that fought for their country, but also those that still do. In respect of those who serve today we commend them and thank them for the vital work that they do.
But what about the generations that will follow us? Will they and indeed, should they continue to mark ‘Remembrance Sunday’ in the way that we still do today? The BBC Radio 4 ‘Moral Maze’ programme covered this topic in a broadcast that I listened to late on Saturday evening and without overstating it, I was disappointed in many of the views that I heard. I have myself in the past been a witness on the Moral Maze so best that I leave it at that!
Notwithstanding that, Waterloo and Trafalgar apart, we ourselves play scant regard to many other centuries old battles fought at sea or on land and that used to be taught in schools and where, in art form at the very least, death often appears to be almost taken for granted, I for one hope that long after I am gone Remembrance Sunday, a day that I will always regard as being a hugely important and symbolic day commemorating as it does, all those that gave their lives or who fought or were injured or survived in the various conflicts that we have been engaged including subsequent conflicts such as Malaya, Kenya, Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan and who are ready to do so again should the call come, will continue the tradition of annual remembrance. They will I hope do so because this will act as a permanent reminder of how fortunate we are today that we are able to live in relative freedom, peace and stability.
Of course, as we look around the political arena today we recognise that the world is far from being stable or at one with itself. Harmony is not a word one would use to describe western politics right now let alone international relations.
While it was of course lovely to observe the French President, Emmanuel Macron and his German counterpart, Angela Merkel signing a visitor book at the place where the Armistice was signed and genuinely committing themselves to, observe seventy world political leaders including Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin attend a luncheon in Paris yesterday and as we ourselves here in the UK welcomed the German President, His Excellency Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the Act of Remembrance at the Cenotaph and later, the very special Armistice Remembrance service held in Westminster Abbey last evening during which, rather than being decorated with poppies, had bouquets of flowers laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior by both the German President and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, we must also recognise that harmony that has existed between the United Kingdom and France and Germany is being seriously tested by our decision to leave the European Union.
I am not sure that Emmanuel Macron’s remarks yesterday that “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal” fall into the category of good political diplomacy. The divide between France and the US is, as they say, omnipresent right now and I doubt that we will see improvement in relations any time soon.
Leaving geo-political concerns that divide our relationship with Russia and Iran and where we might also have concerns over China’s ambitions aside, we recognise that the relationship between European nations and the USA has also been seriously tested partly through a White House presidency that has been determined to test the old order and to bring about change and also by those within Continental Europe who might prefer to believe that Europe needs to defend itself and play less reliance on the US.
That Europe needs to pay more and do more in relation to its own defence is not in doubt but how to get there is. Britain and many other of our European allies believe firmly that NATO remains the way forward for collective western defence and that having enhanced NATO readiness and responsiveness of conventional forces NATO has demonstrated that it has been able to quickly adapt to change.
NATO’s defence posture is based on an effective combination of two key pillars: cutting edge weapons systems and platforms AND military personnel trained to work together seamlessly. As NATO members with diverse views, the testing of the relationship between the US, France and to a lesser extent with Germany should be of concern to all of us just as it should also be in respect to our own future relationship with the US and separately with our European allies.
I may dislike way that the US has been going about seeking change but I even more dislike the manner that Emmanuel Macron has taken in the reported remarks he has made recently including last week’s call for a “true European army to defend against Russian AND the US. No surprise that President Trump was guarded during his meetings with President Macron at the Elysee Palace on Saturday and this time I find myself disagreeing views of the former Democrat Secretary of State, Senator John Kelly.
It is not unusual that I stress the vital importance of NATO and of collective western defence but it is timely once again I feel to remind that, because of NATO, Europe has now been at peace with itself for the past 73 years and that no matter what, nothing must ever be allowed to break down the harmony that has been established since NATO was formally created just four days after I was born.
As we see unwise intentions that smack of nationalism rather than continuation of a genuine collectivist stance that was long ago adopted by the European Union we need to remind ourselves sometimes that the EU has been a consequence rather than the cause of peace in Europe since its foundation and that it is to NATO rather than the EU that, being the guarantor of peace in Europe over the past 69 years, we look up to for maintaining collective peace in Europe. Nothing in my view should ever be allowed to interfere or damages such a perspective.
I will not attempt to rewrite what others have usefully already written and what follows is to me useful recognition from ‘Veterans for Britain’ of why it is to NATO rather than the EU that we thank for preserving peace in Europe.
“In the first place, the EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community was only founded in 1951, immediately begging the question of how peace was preserved in the six years since 1945 if there was no supranational body in charge. Certainly the Coal and Steel Community was intended to entwine France and Germany so closely as to deter future war, but given that Germany was fragmented and occupied until Berlin’s reunification, this deterrent was military as well as economic.
One must understand that a huge tension existed in Germany between East and West for many years, a tension that the Coal and Steel Community did almost nothing to reduce. What prevented tension escalating into war was NATO and the continued presence of a nuclear deterrent which gave the alliance its strength.
It makes much more sense to see the EU and its predecessors as a consequence of the peace in Europe between World War Two and the onset of the Cold War rather than a cause. With the security afforded by NATO and economic assistance provided by the Marshall Plan, the Western Europeans could go about rebuilding their economies, with no means and no desire for further hostilities among themselves”.
With the EU, or France at any rate with the perceived backing of Germany, seeking to travel in divergent directions to NATO with its seeming determination to form an EU army we must all recognise the seriousness of threat posed to European stability should this come to pass. Remember this too – if [past] record is anything to go by (Balkans) when the EU has tried operations on its own, it has been NATO that has been left to pick up the pieces and resolve the crisis.
CHW (London – 12th November 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd
M: +44 7710 779785