10 Jul 2015

There is a corner… mourn but don’t militarise terror deaths

“If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England.”

I found myself thinking about Rupert Brooke’s soldier this morning as we mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and think about British tourists who were murdered in Tunisia.

The coffin of Bruce Wilkinson is placed in a hearse at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire

The surviving six Battle of Britain fighter pilots will be at today’s commemoration, undoubtedly thinking of comrades who died.

Most of their bodies were lost or destroyed so they have no graves – their names are recorded on a memorial instead.

Others killed in WWII and WWI are buried – like Rupert Brooke’s soldier – where they fell.

I have visited Commonwealth War graves from Tobruk in Libya to Stanley in Hong Kong and even Gaza.

They are peaceful, moving places where British names are recorded next to fallen comrades from New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and many other parts of the British empire.

In Tobruk there are German and Italian cemeteries too.

In the WWI cemetery in Mons in Belgium, which I visited for the 100th Anniversary, German soldiers lie, respectfully commemorated, just a few yards from those they were fighting. It is part of our history and theirs.

But now we bring our fallen back. It’s possible because relatively few British soldiers die in battle, but the pratice also marks a cultural change.

As the war in Afghanistan stumbled on, British soldiers’ bodies were repatriated to Wootton Bassett in an echo of the American tradition of bringing home the war dead.

The aim was to get the public to care about the war, but the unintended consequence was that soldiers were seen more as victims than heroes.

Now we have taken this practice to a new level. Last week the bodies of British tourists killed in Tunisia were brought back to RAF Brize Norton.

Their coffins were carried off the planes by RAF personnel in full uniform for short ceremonies in front of their families.

There’s no question that the dead should be treated with dignity but why the military style honour? They were not soldiers fighting a battle – they were innocent tourists on holiday.

And that’s the point. Terrorists see all westerners as legitimate targets, and if we treat civilians as soldiers we are playing into that narrative.

We should mourn but not militarise the deaths of civilians killed in terror attacks. We should honour but not fetishise the deaths of British soldiers.

Our culture has been “Diana-ficated” – tens of thousands weep (briefly) for those they have never met. It cheapens the true grief of the bereaved. And it sends the message to terrorists that their tactics work.

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