I was five years old when I first took part in this annual observance, at my school where generations of boys had walked silently through the gloomy, paneled halls under the glare of Hogwartsian house- masters, been taught Euclid, Divinity and Rugby, and grown up to be men called to serve their country.
The conclusion of this recitation of death was marked by a patriotic speech by the headmaster, the same words every year, followed by the singing of "Jerusalem," William Blake's great romantic poem to Englishness. Then we went back to class, still studying, among other things, Euclid (math), Divinity and Rugby.
Some years later on that same anniversary, I stood in the crowd in Whitehall, London, watching the band of the Royal Marines march slowly past the Cenotaph, the symbolic memorial in the middle of the avenue to all Britain's war dead. Old servicemen and new recruits marched smartly past, some light of step, some faltering with age. I proudly watched my father, wearing a poppy in the buttonhole of his greatcoat above his rows of medals, his simple beret marked by the badge of the Royal Naval veterans, swing by in perfect order with his elderly shipmates. Their eyes flicked right, their hands snapped a salute like clockwork as they passed the royal dais.
Wreaths were laid, guns boomed, and at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the nation stood silent, as it does every year, honoring and mourning the legions of dead comrades.
The losses and suffering of two world wars touched every family in Britain, as sons didn't come home, or returned blinded and crippled, and civilians were blown apart in their houses where they futilely sheltered from the Blitz.
It's easy to become mawkish at these memorial events, to reduce their import by political posturing, to use the past sacrifice of others to garnish present reputations. My father would have none of it. He mightily resented politicians who had never fired a shot in anger using his years of hardship and fear as propaganda for their next war campaign.
Years of warfare made my father a man of peace. He lived in fear of imminent death from a torpedo blasting a hole through the thin steel walls of his destroyer's engine room, where he labored in 120-degree heat many feet below the waterline. Turning the tables, becoming the hunter, and sending the crew of an enemy submarine to their watery graves brought only fleeting joy, then sadness. Those who lived and died by the sea shared a common foe and common feelings.
As he left one last time to fight in the futile Suez campaign in 1956, where British and French troops invaded Egypt in a final, hopeless throw of empire, he told me of his doubts, his lack of belief in war as a solution to anything.
"But what about Hitler?" I remember asking. "He had to be stopped, didn't he?"
"Oh, yes," said my father. "Sometimes we have to go to war. But when we do, it shows we've failed as a nation. Wars are declared by incompetent people."
I buried my father decades ago, lowering him into the ground beneath the white battle ensign of the Royal Navy he loved so much. If he were still with us, I'm sure he would side with the American and British generals who oppose a war with Iraq. The hawks in Washington are all civilians, with no children in the armed forces. But those who urge caution have mostly worn the uniform of their country, and stood proudly like my Dad, with medals on their chests, earned in combat. Listen to them: Wesley Clarke, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Sir Michael Rose, Lord Bramall. Add to these military voices those of experienced American statesmen like Richard Holbrook, James Baker and Henry Kissinger (of all people) and the arguments become compelling for diplomacy over war, and subtle covert action, when necessary, over bludgeoning frontal assault.
Like my father, American and British soldiers, sailors and pilots will do their duty if ordered to war, be it with Iraq, Iran or any other country George W. Bush doesn't like. But as we mourn the dead of September 11, let us not defile their memory by eagerly urging more killing. Let us use war only as a last resort, not as this nation's preferred method of foreign policy. I wish the supposed majority of Americans who profess in the polls to support war with Iraq could talk to my Dad.