Saturday, 13 October 2007

No equality in death

Few readers will be unaware that, yesterday, the Queen unveiled "the first ever truly national memorial dedicated to UK Service Personnel who have lost their lives since the Second World War".

Described on the MoD website, the memorial – located in the 150 acre woodland of the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire - has almost 16,000 names engraved on its huge Portland stone walls, with space for 15,000 more, "a poignant reminder of the cost of the freedom and democracy enjoyed in the UK".

As mother of Phillip Hewett, who was killed so tragically in Iraq in July 2005, I with my husband - along with other bereaved families - were invited to the unveiling. We have been to Alrewas many times but this time, as you would expect, numbers were limited.

But, it seems, even with bereaved families, there is no equality in death. After being told that each family could only have two tickets, however, we found that other families had four. This, I thought was more than a little unfair as my father who had himself served for 17 years in the Army. Had I not phoned up to inquire about more tickets, he would have been disappointed but, as it was, I was used to the way of the authorities. I managed to get another ticket.

When the tickets arrived, they were coloured green. This had no particular meaning for us, but we were to find out that colour was everything. We began to learn this when I inquired about parking at the arboretum. I was asked whether my tickets were "red or green". Then, I found out that for "greenies", there was no parking – even though I was also giving a lift to parents of another soldier killed in Iraq, one of whom was disabled,

Even then, the penny had not fully dropped. It was not until the night before the event when I was phoned by a father of another lad that the official "colour prejudice" became clear. He told me that had red tickets and had been told to park at Alrewas itself. When we got there, us "greenies" had to go to some distance to a "park and ride" area and were forced to wait for a bus for the last part of the journey.

It was at the arboretum, though, that we really began to feel the effects of our colour. Us lesser mortals – that we were – were herded off to a green-coloured marquee, to be given plated sandwiches to eat while standing, while the "reds" wined and dined in the comfort of a fully equipped dining area.

The "reds", we found, were classed as VIP guests. We, the "great unwashed", were fenced off from them in a completely different part of the site, allowing the "reds" to meet the Queen and prime minister and other guests. And while they had freedom to roam, we - as befitted our second-class status – were herded from place to place like cattle.

As one of the parents said to me, "how many children do you have to lose to be classed as important the officers and their wives - the people who had lost nobody?".

For all that, when we actually came to look at the monument, I felt quite disappointed. It was not the work that had gone in to the structure, but the way the dead had been treated. There were no ranks and no regiments - just a list of names, like out of a school register. I do not know what I expected but it was not what I saw.

I know that was not alone in feeling disappointed in the way we were treated. We were never given the chance to meet the Queen or anyone in the privileged "red" section. All we saw of Her Majesty was the rear of her Bentley as it disappeared down the drive after the ceremony. Everything was geared to making us feel like second-class citizens. Even when we got on the coaches to depart, priority was given to those with red tickets. It was a sad day made even sadder by the exclusion of all the families involved.

Of course, the suspicion is that people like myself, who have spoken out about the way our troops have been treated, and several other families who speak out – members of the "awkward squad" - were kept as far away from the VIPs as possible.

The affair had to be "sanitised" and us rabble had to be kept from polluting our betters. We were tolerated as "extras" for the TV cameras and the press, on the day – and we were allowed to send our sons to die for the nation – but we must still know our place.

9 comments:

The Huntsman said...

Welcome Sue and much admiration for taking this on. May your pen grow ever sharper!

Your remark about the absence of rank and regiment is important as this can tell so much to those who come in the distant future about the nature of conflict: the story at the moment is but half-told.

Is it being too cynical to suppose that the cult of equality now rules in death?

Mary said...

Your post has left me feeling sad, angry for you and amazed at the extraordinary insensitivity of whoever thought fit to make such a distinction. And the memorial itself makes no distinction between rank? This just shows how much Doublethink was going on. What should have been a quiet ceremony to honour the dead seems instead to have left you feeling anything but honoured for the sacrifice made by your brave son, Phillip.
I hope you know how much ordinary people like me do honour the families who are grieving - whatever their ticket colour. Anyone who reads such a moving account can feel only sadness for you and wish it were possible to express adequately the gratitude and deep sympathy due to your family.

caroljones said...

I was at the ceremony. My son was killed in Iraq in 2005. When I saw his name on the memorial without his rank and regiment I felt sick. After 15.1/2 years off hard work , no recognition. Why didn't the Queen say 'hello' or just a wave would have done, but she never spoke a word. The 'greens' had to watch a large TV , we were situated so that we couldn't see a thing. But then its always the same 'them' and 'us'

Oliver McCarthy said...

Sue, I do feel very sorry for you, and I'm sure I'm like everyone else in being very grateful that you're doing this. I've never lost any members of my family in the way you have, even if there were one or two hairy moments when my brother was in Iraq a couple of years ago.

But we all know that the Government is a completely heartless organisation and that's the way it's been for a long time. I think the truth now is that this country is so large and/or centralised that human feelings and natural connexions have somehow got lost and been forgotten.

The only person I know who's met Her Majesty (i.e. my brother) has said that she was polite and charming. But she is cut off from the "real" business of Government nowadays, and the Government is cut off from real people, and real people are politically aparthetic. But that is the way things have been for centuries, I feel.

I presume there is a way of finding names on the memorial with some sort of index system. But well done for pointing out the "equality" meme, not to mention the hypocrisy of then dividing the "VIPs" from the "great unwashed". It seems sad that even when the Government makes an effort to "honour the fallen" it still ends up feeling careless and tokenistic.

Hungry Hippo said...

I found your blog via http://www.meonline.co.uk/g8sum and it made me feel very sad for you. What you describe feels wrong.

gatesofvienna said...

I just feel very sad very angry and very ashamed of the way all the families of our loved troops are being treated.
I'm so very sorry for you all.
And filled with absolute disgust at what we laughingly call our Elite.
Our Elite are the families together with their sons and daughters that with such courage and bravery put those at the top to shame.
God-bless you all.

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martin said...

It comes as no surprise to me,in the way you were treated. Why could there have not been one large tent for you all ?. But my mind goes back to when Tony 'Bliar' was in the Houses of Parliament,and was asked if he could spare some time to visit with some families of soldiers that had lost their lives.They were in a room that he passed on his way out of the chamber. His answer ?. Of course 'no' he did not have time. Did he ever visit any troops that were in hospital ?. No, because he would have to look them in the eye,and he, unlike them,is a coward. The important thing is that the people of this country value their loss and thank them for their sacrifice.

Anji said...

Keith http://www.meonline.co.uk/g8sum
sent me.

I can't believe that you were treated so badly - nothing changes does it?