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11th Nov 2018

COMMENT: There is value in remembering the normality of heroes

Nooruddean Choudry

They shall not grow old.

There’s a great line in Pulp’s 1997 hit, ‘Help the Aged’. The unashamedly earnest song begins with the arresting lyric: “Help the aged, one time they were just like you, drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue.” It’s perfect because it immediately smashes any veneer of reverence we may have for ‘senior citizens’ as respectable, unrelatable, and generationally boring.

It’s not confined to the elderly either. We can sometimes remove people from ourselves, as if they are somehow of a different breed. Such thinking is often born of well-intentioned respect, and a veneration for something we admire about them. But it also has the consequence of eroding a level of empathy. If we don’t feel like them, we can’t properly feel for them.

This weekend we remember those affected by the Great War. In an age when the symbol of the poppy and remembrance in general has various different connotations for different people, the Armistice centenary focuses thoughts on the human sacrifice between 1914 and 1918. For this country, that means over 740,000 killed and nearly 1.7 million wounded in action.

Of course such numbers are so horrifically monumental that they become abstract to our minds. The old maxim, ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic’, often attributed to Joseph Stalin is certainly true whoever said it. After a certain point, we acknowledge loss on a cerebral level, but our hearts partly check out. It’s less a feeling than a fact.

That’s why you’ll often see the very arbitrary measure of football stadia as a unit of comparison – because it’s probably the largest scale of people we can process. It’s not as if we stop caring after X many fatalities, it’s just we struggle to relate. But as soon as an individual’s story is considered, we instantly recognise that in ourselves and become emotionally invested.

There can also be a disconnect in the gap between deference and compassion when the memories of the fallen are deified. They can become so one-dimensional in the integrity, heroism, and even self-aware fatalism we map onto them, that we start to believe they were the generation that were born to die. As if only they could have endured such tests.

It’s patently untrue of course. They should have lived out their natural lives the same as you and I. It wasn’t their inescapable destiny to die in action. They had every right to strive for the same dreams and hopes as any of us – and they should’ve been allowed to fuck up and dick around as much as any of us do. They were normal people who were made heroes by tragic circumstance.

Describing them as ‘normal’ is in no way belittling their achievements, hardships or sacrifice. Rather it is rooting them in the same fallible, imperfect world as ourselves – and making their loss all the more poignant. It seems counterintuitive, but the more we exalt them as sepia superhumans destined for glorious demise, the less we give them due credit for what they endured and lost.

It’s heartening to see the efforts of Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson, and others in breaking down the myth and mystic of the first world war and those who served in it. Their attempts to humanise – and even normalise – those whose lives were lost or irreparably broken are both profound and deeply moving. And it is an essential reminder that one time they were just like you.