It's the 11th day of the 11th month
Armistice Day, Poppy Day, Angel Day. From our most British commemoration to a new age 11:11 subculture the 11th of November is significant. And it’s my wedding anniversary.
But I don’t want to talk about weddings but war. I am a pacifist. It’s one of the few positions I am profoundly attached too, which is odd as I can be quite argumentative and chaotic. I’d love to be peaceful inside, which a therapist might say is why I look for it outside.
The Dalai Lama is one of my top human beings. Maintaining his commitment to non-violent protest to the Chinese occupation of Tibet is the most impressive thing I have ever seen any person ever do. I know I couldn’t. I hold a deep prejudice against China for relentless torturing of Tibetan monks and nuns, raping the Tibetan landscape and destroying the culture. How His Holiness remains holy is beyond me. I suspect I’d have been with the snipers in the hills.
And yet I remain committed to peace because war only ever damages us. It damages families for generations. I believe every one person killed in a war wreaks havoc on four generations.
We rightly remember those that went to war. Looking death in the face day after day, seeing friends blown up in front of you or die in your arms; shell shock doesn’t begin to describe the trauma. Now we have whole teams flown in to support the survivors of disasters. How many psychotherapists helped the bereaved of 9/11 compared to the number who supported the survivors or widows of our world wars? So we buy poppies and sit in silence thinking of that terrible sacrifice. Of kids, only just out of school, having to run over a trench towards certain death. We try, and cannot imagine how they must have felt.
Until very recently British soldiers would fly home to their windswept wife and kids waiting on the tarmac. We now have American style homecoming parades. Our view on soldiers has changed in the last decade which I’m intrigued by. Is it that now everyone who fought in World War 2 has gone that we can finally look it in the face? I don’t remember poppy-wearing being compulsory when I was young. ITV News presenter Charlene White received a barrage of racist and sexist abuse for her positions on poppies. As she pointed out “I support and am patron of a number of charities, and due to impartiality rules, I am not allowed to visually support them all whilst presenting news programmes. That includes things like a red ribbon for World Aids Day or a purple band for Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Both these and many more charities do great things in the UK, but I'm not allowed to give them exposure on screen.” And yet in spite of donating money to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal she gets it in the neck for choosing not to wear her poppy whilst on air. In Brighton a Green councillor was forced out and lost his job for describing soldiers as ‘hired killers’.
We used to gloss over those that were left behind, although now Help for Heroes includes the families too. Those poor wives who had to switch from an entire upbringing and culture that taught them to stay at home and wash dishes, to being single mothers with no early years childcare, getting back into to work courses, or training in how the hell to bring up happy functional children when you lived in constant fear of receiving that telegram. Or telling them daddy wasn’t coming back whilst keeping calm and carrying on as if nothing had happened. And as British women they had it easy, they mostly had food. And never faced occupation. In Germany many women starved, or endured the real threat of mass rape. We talk of Allied invasions of Germany like it was a good thing. But on the Eastern Front, estimates of the numbers of German women raped by Soviet Red Army soldiers range up to 2 million. In many cases women were the victims of repeated rapes, some as many as 60 to 70 times. Hospital reports and the surging abortion rates in the following months suggest at least 100,000 women were been raped by Soviet soldiers arriving in Berlin.
We understand war is hideous. But my mind also turns to the other repercussions. Like what happens to the families.
It is against the natural order of things for parents see their children die. From the moment we hold our first baby it becomes our worst nightmare. Some of us watched a whole generation of old people silenced, sitting in darkened dusty rooms because all the joy had gone out of their lives when their son fell on a battlefield or their daughter was caught in a bomb. The old people in many families as I grew up were a load of grumpy buggers. I thought that was just old people. Now I realise it’s because every one of them had lost someone they adored beyond measure and had never got over it. Look at our older people now. They might not all be on cruises or dating websites, but they don’t feel like Harry Potter’s dementors any more, sucking the joy out of life.
And what about the children? Both my grandfathers were soldiers and my parents were born during the Second World War. My father was a toddler in Hong Kong whilst his father was a soldier there, defending this British colony. The area started to look unsafe and my dad was evacuated on a troop ship to Australia. His father remained behind and fought the first battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II. The Battle of Hong Kong. The attack was in violation of international law as Japan had not declared war against the British Empire. And in another violation The Imperial Japanese Army killed my granddad. Instead of taking him as a POW Japanese soldiers chose to murder him in a firing squad.
So my three year old dad was in Australia with a penniless young mother who luckily was helped by her husband’s rich cousins. Unluckily they sent dad to boarding school. Either some well meaning friend convinced her it would be good for him to be with men since he’s lost his father or the cousins didn’t want a boisterous toddler tearing round, or maybe she had a breakdown and couldn’t cope. Who knows. I still can’t imagine what could possess anyone to take a little boy barely out of nappies who had just lost his father away from his mother too. After thirty years of studying human behaviour I see the impact of this in the depths of my father’s psyche. It impacted him on so many levels. We understand what happens to men that grow up without fathers, less about children who are institutionalised so young. Luckily my grandmother was very enterprising and the limitations of a widows’ pension didn’t stop her getting him back to Scotland, bringing him up and wangling a free private school education. Dad didn’t follow his father and grandfather and great grandfather into the army. He said he wanted to earn some money and make sure he wasn’t poor again.
It also made him a feminist. While my friends were being given the posh version of an upbringing that involved teaching them to stay at home and wash dishes my dad became fixated in giving me a boy’s education. The mantra of my childhood was ‘you have to get qualifications so you can support yourself.’ I started at the village school when I was just three years old. I was the only girl in my class at the boy’s prep school I attended between six and eight years old. My food-loving Dad endured instant coffee and mince long after he rose to Managing Director so he could pay school fees for me to attend Cheltenham Ladies College, a school founded by a fabulous pair of early feminists, who started a school and an Oxford College to educate girls to the same level as boys. And god help me when I rang him from Paris to say I’d been taken on by a model agency. I was summoned straight back to London to take up the graduate training scheme post I’d been offered by Marks & Spencer. I imagine for the sake of my children should I marry a soldier and become widowed too.
My mother was another war baby. Her father got wind of the impending Blitz and she was shipped out to Devon to a children’s home at eighteen months old. When I asked my granny how she could have done this she said: “We were told ‘a good woman can look after your child or a bad one can look after your husband’”. Child development specialists now say “It is only within the context of the adult-child relationship that children accomplish the various developmental tasks related to psychological maturation. Separation from or loss of parents due to death, divorce, incarceration or removal to foster care will have a major impact on the child’s psychological development and possibly on his/her cognitive and physical development as well.” (Susan Hois, Child Development Specialist)
And so I come to the fourth generation that war impacts. Yes I am exceedingly lucky to have had such a good education. And going to such a posh school can open doors, although they are doors I’d mostly rather not go through. However being brought up by two traumatised parents had its effects. Both of them lost out at very significant stages of their development. Susan Hois continues: “Although the effects of parental separation/loss will vary from child to child and family to family, the negative impact this has can be minimized if the child can live in an environment that is supportive to the grieving process and able to offer an explanation and understanding of his life events. Unfortunately, many, many children who have suffered this trauma have not received sufficient help in resolving loss issues and are, to one degree or another, psychologically “stuck” at the age of the loss of their primary attachment objects.”
Being brought up by two people still stuck trying to be brave little soldiers themselves has its challenges. I feel the impact in my life and my upbringing from the death of just one man. My brilliant education gave me the ability not just to support myself but also to pay for quite a lot of therapeutic support as well.
Over 60 million people were killed in World War 2. That’s four generations of 60,000,000 families who’ve lost out. Bert Hellinger, who is considered to be one of the most innovative and influential family therapists in the world today, pioneered a way of disentangling the current members of a family from the unresolved issues of previous generations after being drafted into the German army and experienced combat, capture and imprisonment as a prisoner of war of the Allies aged 17. It was to his work I turned to when I was facing my own repercussions of war. I was pregnant, fearing my third miscarriage and noted that my grandmother had a number of miscarriages too. I wondered if they were connected. The ‘Hellinger’ work I did showed me that children, who are the most vulnerable members of any family system, will often highlight what is being ignored. “If in a family one member has been excluded or forgotten ... then later on in that family, in the next generation, another member takes up the same fate.” So when grandpa was killed, and granny though it best not to talk about him again, the babies that came afterwards followed grandpa and miscarried. I did the work that Hellinger proscribed, and really faced my grandfather, so the baby I was carrying didn’t have to. I learnt everything I could about him. I visited his birthplace, his school, his regiment. And gave birth, against the odds, to a healthy little girl. We called her Poppy. It wasn’t long before someone pointed out that Poppys are the way we remember those who didn’t return from the war. Like my grandpa. And today is Armistice Day, my wedding anniversary. We made Poppy on our wedding night. It was months before we made the connection that Poppy was conceived on Poppy day.
And so whilst I have immense respect for soldiers and soldier’s wives, I am a pacifist and remember today not just those who fought, but those who knew fighting was not the answer and wouldn’t fight. I’ll remember what my ancestors went through so that I could be here. And when I’m done with that I’m going to drink champagne with my husband, celebrate our wedding and the continuation of life too.
(You can see more about my grandfather and the battle of Hong Kong in a short film made to commemorate what would have been his 100thbirthday at http://www.myancestryfilms.com/Projects-in-Progress%282344828%29.htm.)