Where do we look for heroes, today of all days? Not at the war memorial. They have almost all gone away. There used to be soldiers, sailors, airmen, Waafs and Wrens everywhere, even if they were mostly invisible. The elderly gent shuffling home from the supermarket with a budget meal for one, a survivor of the Somme. The bank manager polishing his car on Sunday, dogged by memories of D-Day. The headmaster who thrashed the same boys repeatedly and who was taken away in the end. Manhandled out of the school. He had gone funny in the head, they said, thanks to a war wound he never mentioned. Silence was a characteristic of most of those old soldiers. The battles were as close then in history as Live Aid is now, but the combatants kept mum. Except on Remembrance Sunday. Then they polished medals and cap badges, dusted down regimental blazers and marched with the Scouts and Guides. The Last Post was played hesitantly by a bugler from the Boys’ Brigade, the Mayor led the hymn singing and hundreds turned up to join in. The scene will be repeated all over the country today, but in many places the old soldiers will be older and fewer, the uniformed organisations down to the stragglers, and the crowds absent. War is what happens far away, or long ago, or on the PlayStation.
Those of us who grew up in the Seventies were the last to tell tales of the Second World War. Victor Book for Boys or Commando taught us what heroism was. And while it was the boys who obsessed about all this, the folktales of wartime were everywhere, and some of the heroes (as in the film A Town Called Alice or the TV series Tenko) were heroines. That was before Star Wars and its successors provided fantastical substitutes for war; before the primal urge to form a tribe and beat the crap out of the other lot was sublimated into football or video consoles.
Those of us whose parents and grandparents had fought were ignorant and romantic about the reality of soldiering, but we had a sense that those who fought had done it for a good reason. The further you are from a conflict, historically, the easier it is to see in simple terms. Regardless of the shades of contemporary opinion, the Second World War is now seen as Good versus Evil.
The invasion of Afghanistan seemed nostalgically simple and right, until it went wrong. Still, many of the troops there still have the sense that it is the Right Thing To Do. That was harder in Iraq. How easy would it have been to bend over the body of Kingsman Jamie Hancock (pictured), a teenager shot while on sentry duty in Basra four years ago, and wonder what the hell it was all for?
Today he is remembered along with the teenagers who died in the mud of Flanders nearly a century ago. At the Menin Gate memorial to the battles of Ypres a few years ago a survivor of that slaughter hauled himself to his feet, gripped my arm and saluted. He was 106. When asked why he had come, at risk to his life, he wheezed and coughed and thought a while and said: “Because they can’t.” He meant the teenage boys whose bodies were blown to bits or lost. He wore his medals to say he had been there, and so had they. They were not around to stand like this in the cold and remember, but he would keep doing it until the day he died. For Billy, Ernie, Chalky. All the boys. His mates. The dead.
For most of us, soldiers are strangers. The closest we get is in the town square of a garrison town on a Saturday night. For most of the time they do whatever it is they do out on the moors, behind fortified walls or in the desert. Then, when it is time to hand out medals, as is being considered at the moment, tales emerge of men – always men – storming the enemy single-handedly. This version of heroism is sometimes rehearsed in the tabloids: one British soldier was photographed with bullet belts criss-crossing his chest next to the account of how he had personally fired 40,000 rounds.
But the Strong Man is deadly because he fights for both sides. He allows the man who feels so aggrieved and powerless that he straps explosive to his body and blows up the enemy along with himself to claim to be a hero. The cult of the Strong Man leads us to the suicide bomber.
He has a modern brother, the Rescuer. Private Johnson Beharry won the first Victoria Cross in 40 years for saving his platoon from an ambush. What he did was heroic and deserved recognition. But the Rescuer is a PR-friendly hero. It was undeniably helpful to the Government to award our highest military honour to a young black Briton when the nation was struggling with multiculturalism and beginning to doubt the war in Iraq. But the VC has often been awarded for strategic reasons in its 150-year history.
Over that time our notions of heroism have changed dramatically. During the past decade, in museums, oral history projects or just quiet living rooms, that generation of men and women who kept silent after the last world war have been sharing their stories. As a society we have also learned to value the experience of civilians. The war memorials may be less crowded, but the internet throbs with stories.
Superb online projects such as the BBC’s People’s War website helped ordinary people take heroism back from the powerful and the victorious. My grandmother raised children among rat-infested ruins during the Blitz, surviving on adrenalin and very little food, and with nerves shredded by the screaming bombs. She lived alongside women who watched for fires from buildings that were themselves on fire. She saw a mother lay down on top of a child to save it, taking the force of an explosion. She saw nurses brave flying timbers and incendiary bombs. None of them got a medal for it, nor did they boast about it.
They did what they had to. That is what our servicemen and women do now. That they are volunteers does not lessen their sacrifice. Nor does our doubt about the wars they are fighting.
Those who revisit wartime memories today know a truth, deep down in their aching bones. It is that if a country asks a man or a women to give their life it should – it must – be in a good cause. Not for oil, or Bush family revenge or some ultimately pointless geopolitical power game. At the going down of the sun, here and in Sangin, we should remember that.
This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday.