On village greens, in city centres and in churches throughout the land, we will gather on Remembrance Sunday and on Armistice Day in front of our war memorials. We will lay wreaths, observe two minutes’ silence and repeat Binyon’s familiar words, concluding with the refrain: ‘We will remember them.’ We have done it many times before, and we will do it for years to come. Each and every one has their own thoughts, which the privacy of the two minutes’ silence cannot penetrate. Those two minutes are intensely personal, as recollections of friends or relatives, or just those who have gone before us in sacrifice for our freedom, come to mind, but those two minutes are also universal, with the realisation that millions are doing the same thing at that moment. We are alone with our thoughts, but we are together in our thanksgiving.
But this year, with the last of the First World War veterans in this country having died, the direct link to that terrible war has gone. It is 65 years since D-Day, the battles for Normandy and Arnhem, and 27 years since that intense conflict over the Falkland Islands. Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo are also now closed chapters in our military history, but the legacy of sacrifice in those campaigns endures, as does the legacy of those wounded both physically and mentally. For bereaved families and for injured soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, the pain of remembrance continues. Does time heal? I am not sure. But does the gratitude of the nation endure? Most definitely.
This year is marked out by three special factors. In July, the UK ended its commitment to Iraq. We left after more than six years of bloodshed, determination and resolve. It was never easy, it was not always entirely clear what was our objective, but our legacy is that large parts of southern Iraq are free from dictatorship and open to opportunity and hope. Basra is a city with a future and not one shrouded in fear. But we have left behind the spirits of 179 of our fellow countrymen and women who gave their lives on another foreign field. This year, we salute their sacrifice and their achievement. The baton has passed to the Iraqis to maximise the investment we have made in their future. Let us hope that they, with the help of the international community, rise to the challenge.
Second, southern Afghanistan has become almost exclusively the focus of our military endeavours, and at a cost some 70 servicemen and women lost their lives during 19 Light Brigade’s tour of duty, just finished, and more than 200 of our people have lost their lives there since 9/11. The walls of the Armed Forces Memorial in the National Arboretum will have many new names added as the sun breaks through the gap in the wall and shines onto the centrepiece sculpture at the 11th hour of the 11th month of 2009. Is it worth it? Many struggle with that question, but the answer for me is a resounding yes. It is an important war in which we must succeed, and we will succeed. Failure is not an option, not only because of the sacrifice of those who have lost their lives, but for the safety of us all.
It is a war fought among the people of Afghanistan people are the environment, in the way that hills, towns and river lines were the key factors in conventional wars of the past. It is a war fought about the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region more generally and we need to persuade them to support their elected government and not fall under the sway of the Taliban. We are doing that by clearing areas of insurgents and holding those areas securely, so that a better life with good government, a legal economy and traditional lifestyles can be built. And it is a war for the people not only those of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for those of Britain and elsewhere in the West, so that the war-torn areas cannot become failed states from which mass terror could again be exported to our streets. Yes, this is another war in a corner of a foreign field, but it is one that affects the heart of our well-being, too.
The third thing that is different this year at Remembrance is that a growing number of families who have suffered a loss in the wars since 1945 will bear an Elizabeth Cross as a symbol of thanks from a grateful nation for the sacrifice they have borne on our behalf. When The Queen gave her name to this emblem, presented to the next of kin of those who lose their lives on operations, it cemented the link between those who have experienced such a loss and the thanks from the rest of us who have benefited from that sacrifice. As more and more people receive Elizabeth Crosses, we will all be reminded on a daily basis of the sacrifice made by brave young soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen on our behalf, and not just once a year, on Remembrance Sunday, gathered around our war memorial.
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the Sun
And in the Morning
We will remember them
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