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Lest we forget

“Least we forget!” is a phrase invoked to honour the heroism of men and women from every nation on earth who have perished while bearing arms in the name of their homeland and to fix a record of their deeds firmly in the collective memory.

It is used at funerals of deceased soldiers and at national memorials, but without the question, “Lest we forget what?” it can be as much a washing of reason from the collective memory as a way of informing it.

But a nation that does remember valour and sacrifice is a nation that values human life as something far too profound to sacrifice to any insanity of a leader of government.

So when the phrase is invoked to simply glorify how well people fought without probing the reasons why, the sacrifices made by those who fought with valour and honour are in a sense being mocked.

As is often the case in war, people are being called on to sacrifice for something far more mundane than the freedom of their people.

The tendency to justify the aim by honouring the bravery and valour can apply not only to war between nations, but also to the violence of governments against their own people.

If the people do not also remember the reasons for the sacrifices of those who have suffered at the hands of their own governments they will be drowned in propaganda, authoritarianism and censorship.

The aims declared to the people and the aims for which violence is wreaked seldom coincide. In wartime, lofty rhetoric about fighting for freedom or defending empire can mask the truth of greed for territory or shoring up resources.

When words like duty, loyalty, honour and comradeship are conscripted to outshine the causes of violence, a proud ignorance of reason is being flaunted along with a denial of any need to understand.

The failure to match the outcomes of violence with its aims breeds a bigger possibility of a repeat performance.

On the domestic scene, the need for stability or to build the economy can serve just as nicely to mask the desire to shore up power in the hands of a political or economic elite, and victims of state brutality can be conveniently recorded as criminals or thugs instead of what they really were, ordinary, honest citizens appealing for a better deal.

Loyalty, duty, honour and comradeship can easily be replaced with traitor, dissident and subversive in the washing of state violence against innocent citizens from the collective memory, and showing maximum tolerance and last resort measure can become the accepted mantras of history, unless an alternative story is told.

In Hong Kong, the battle to own the Tiananmen story continues. Its museum fights for space that is accessible to people in the city and those who compete to tell the story of a frightened government that could not look its own people in the eye, struggle for a platform.

However, the only remembrance that takes place on Chinese soil—the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park—has been kept sacred and, if the memories of the vilified are not cleansed of the lies that seek to fill the collective memory of a people, the words traitor, dissident and subversive will certainly erase loyalty, duty, honour and comradeship from the history books. JiM