A grain of hope from D-Day

18th June 2004 at 01:00
On June 6, I lay in bed until after midnight reading the author Stephen Ambrose's account of D-Day. I have a particular interest in the landings as, when I stay with my niece in the Normandy village of Lion-sur-Mer, my morning run takes me along what was Sword Beach, captured by the Highland 51st Division.

Ambrose has great ability to capture the general horror of war by focusing on the experience of individuals, but even so his account was even more vivid than usual and I could almost hear the gunfire.

In fact, I actually could hear gunfire. Edinburgh's location on seven hills gives it a pleasant appearance but also lends itself to peculiar tricks on the ears. Lying in bed on Corstorphine Hill on the west side of the city, the gunfire from night-time Army training on the ranges to the south of the city on the Pentlands is clearly audible. Reading of the events of 60 years ago with a background provided by the young soldiers of today provides a kind of three-dimensional stereo emotion.

Demographically, most teachers today are baby boomers, and we are acutely aware of being the first generation to avoid warfare and national service in exchange for the "youth revolution" of the 1960s. Whatever we may think of that deal, we are still the generation whose parents experienced the Second World War and who told us tales of battle or blitz as we grew.

The pupils we teach will therefore be much more removed from what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. As a D-Day commemoration commentator stated: "With the death of the current generation of veterans, the torch of memory will be passed from the living to the realms of history."

In a world of instant gratification, increasing isolation of the individual and the erosion of many moral standards, it becomes progressively more difficult for teenagers to understand the motivation of those who fought in the last century, with ideals such as sacrifice, comradeship and duty already sounding archaic to the young.

I was reflecting that those who ignore the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them, when my thoughts - and the sound of distant gunfire - were drowned out by the arrival home of my neighbour's 18-year-old son.

From his Burberry baseball cap to the expensively modified car with the booming bass, he is the epitome of how young folk wind up old codgers like myself, but you have to make the comparisons of then and now.

As I put out the light, I was thinking that a good starting point for those charged with promoting the values of citizenship as a national priority might well be a handful of sand.

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