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.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum

8 reader comments

  1. A.Kernow says:

    Agreed; your final paragraph says it all.
    How ought we to bring back those who die abroad though?

  2. Alan says:

    When do these articles ever question the states militaristic domestic and foreign policy? When do these articles ever question the states version of the so called war on terror?
    Our culture has been “Diana-ficated”
    A media assessment using media phrases. Maybe if the editorial held out for answers to questions instead of being a state spokesperson you wouldn’t feel so compelled to insult us.

  3. Roger Bruton says:

    I totally agree with you. I find flowers and little tokens being placed everywhere where there has been a death rather mawlish, The word “Diana-ficated” sums it up. I was appalled to see complete strangers hurling flowers at her hearse when a respectful silence and bowed heads would have been appropriate

  4. Ray says:
  5. big jock knew says:

    Their bodies were carried off by Raf personnel in full uniform…maybe because RAF personnel wear uniform in their day jobs and full uniform is worn on these occasions and being flown into Raf Brize Norton because an RAF plane was the only plane big enough to bring all thse victims back together? What is your problem?

  6. oliver s says:

    Nearly agree completely. My caveat would be to know what the families would want.
    It is war however – just that the dead were not soldiers. The war is a direct consequence of the Iraqi war that should never have happened and for which Bush and Blair remain rich and free instead of behind bars.
    Soldiers are now really needed on the ground to remove this menace by extreme force. It will be bloody but the longer the delay the bloodier it will get.
    Also preventing people leaving this country seems crazy. Just remove their citizenship as they would wish anyway.

  7. Frances says:

    Was confused by the military style of the return of the deceased myself. The use of the RAF was possibly simply practical assistance, but the victims were not military personnel. The remains perhaps, once in Britain, should have been handled by suited undertakers instead.

    The minute’s silence was well meant, wondered however, 10 years later, will Jean Charles de Menzes death get a minute’s silence also??

  8. Hugh Parsons says:

    Most of the victims of British campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc were/are civilians so how can we complain when British civilians are the targets.

Comments are closed.