In 1938, aged seventeen, my father joined the Royal Air Force. Many years later, whilst myself serving in the RAF, I asked him why. His answer was simple, “It was obvious a war was coming. It seemed the right thing to do.”
My father could not be mistaken for a hero. He was an ordinary wee Scotsman. Unassuming, understated and quietly passionate, whatever life threw at him he simply tried to do what was right. He was a kind and gentle man.
He and his friends who volunteered were unexceptional: they did no more or less than their own parents and grandparents had done. They had been brought up on tales of the trenches and knew of the horrors of war but accepted that defending their country was an obligation of citizenship, as men have for centuries. In 1938 or ’39 it would have astonished them to be told they were heroes.
Neither would they have understood if they had been told they would be the last generation to respect that basic social compact. When we, their children and grandchildren, ennoble them as heroes we say more of the poverty of our horizons than of them.
Citizenship is about allegiance, about being part of something bigger than ourselves. This is not heroic, it is normal.
My father was a kind and gentle man who simply tried to do what was right.