Friday, January 16, 2009

Remembering the heroes

IT is time once again to remember those who rendered service to their fatherland as members of the Armed Forces, in peace and in war. Service in war or combat is more glorified and is the stuff of epic films. Service in peacetime is less glamorous but no less important. It was popular in the olden days to lionise war heroes, possibly out of fear than genuine adoration. Nowadays, service in peacetime also provides opportunities for heroic performance and selfless achievement.

My father served in Burma during the Second World War. I recall as a little boy the stories he told me about the experience he and his colleagues had in some remote parts of South East Asia. Perhaps, those stories inspired me to join the army as an officer cadet at the tender age of 17. For a long time, my father's medal from his service in Burma was one of my precious possessions.

Throughout my service and the opportunities to study military history, I have searched records for the exploits of Nigerians and Nigerian units who served with the West African Frontier Force and British forces in the First and Second World Wars. Till today, I have not found any. Perhaps, this is because of the perspectives of those who wrote the history. They would not have considered the contributions of those Nigerians of any significance. Or did they?

Service rendered by these valiant men to the colonial powers was commemorated with such monuments as the statue of the Unknown Soldier accompanied by his African carrier in Idumota. Our heroes, whom we remember today, continue to be anonymous and uncelebrated. This is in contrast with what we see in other parts of the world where monuments are erected to honour specific heroes, regiment or units. Why must our heroes be anonymous? Succeeding generations may consider them all part of a pack rather than outstanding elements of different segments of our national journey. Why can't we have memorials dedicated to specific campaigns and major engagements, to honour that participation helped to protect our collective interest, as defined in their era?

My visit to the Arlington National Cemetery in 1975, as a young subaltern on course in the United States (U.S.) was most memorable. Walking through the thoughtfully designed and well-manicured park was an excursion into the history of a country that values and celebrates service, both military and civil. Anyone walking through its hallowed precincts would be suffused with a feeling of pride and a sense of appreciation to heroes past. It is easy to command from such a person a willingness to pay the supreme sacrifice, if and when necessary, knowing that such sacrifice would be appreciated by a caring and grateful nation.

Compare this experience with visits to similar places in Nigeria, one always comes away from such visits disappointed. The environment never gives the impression that these are places for hero's worthy of reverence and remembrance. Our heroes living or dead deserve better. They and their experiences represent a heritage we will do well to preserve and immortalise. Their examples can inspire others now and in the future. What better way to immortalise our heroes than to honour those who are alive and encourage them to feel like icons that are celebrated and appreciated! Many who participated in some of the major obligations of our national life, such as the civil war, peacekeeping and major internal security operations are still alive but practically forgotten. How many Nigerians below the age of 30 know about the Black Scorpion and his exploits? Even my son who grew up within the military environment has never heard of him.

Many do not know why we remember or celebrate service at this time. Therefore, if the celebration is to have deeper meaning to the general populace, it should embody dissemination of knowledge about those we are remembering and celebrating. There is a duty to research and document their exploits, maintain good archives and repositories for formal and informal accounts of their deeds, collectively and individually. Their activities and worldview can be discussed at lectures and symposia. Of course, erection of befitting monuments as memorials to specific attainments would serve as living history.

Conflict in human affairs is inevitable but war is not to be celebrated. Those who advocate not drawing attention to the exploits of our heroes in conflict do so for good reasons. However, it is important to recognise that armed conflict is sometimes imposed by necessity. Human beings who involve in such situations face circumstances over which they have choice. Some may run and hide in the face of fire while others choose to stand and fight fulfilling their obligations beyond the call of duty. We therefore recognise that not everybody who served is worthy of honour. This is an occasion to reward good conduct, to honour and remember those who served well.

We are reminded that the celebration of the Armed Forces Remembrance Day is not just an occasion for alms for veterans and the sale of poppies. More important than that, it is to celebrate the honour and glory exemplified by our heroes. We are supposed to remember them for the sacrifice they have made and to honour their memory in appreciation of their valuable contributions.

Some find it curious in this global age that Nigerian veterans celebrate on a date - January 15 - which is different from others worldwide - November 11. The date is informed by our history. However, some of us miss the sense of identification with the league of veterans worldwide, which the old date symbolised. Why can't we celebrate the two? The fulcrum of stability in the world has changed from war mongering to the culture of peace. Forget the occasional violent outbursts in isolated places. Today, peacekeeping and peace-making help to advance conflict resolution. Consequently, a contemporary General Grade officer in the armed forces might serve a full tour of 35 years without ever fighting any war. Making and keeping the peace is now more important than war.

Nigerian troops have excelled everywhere in peace-keeping operations and observer missions, from the Congo, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Liberia, Somalia to Darer and so on. The exploits of Nigerian troops in these engagements are legendary. This is an occasion to salute the veterans who have brought honour to Nigeria through peacekeeping engagements all over the world. Those who are currently engaged in such operations, which occasionally expose them to personal danger, should be assured that the nation appreciates and cares for them.