Heroes, tanks and kids in Give
Each year on February 28th, in the small provincial town of Give in East-central Jutland, the death of cavalryman Niels Kjeldsen, a local hero from 1864, is commemorated by a wreath-laying ceremony. This years’ commemoration was significantly larger than usual, though. Due to the 150th anniversary of the 1864 war and Kjeldsen’s death to a Prussian bullet, the town center was transformed into a peculiar zone of modern-day military machinery, playful children and freezing family-members, hot dog and soup vendors, plus historical reenactors and other hobby groups providing the “living” links back to the famous conflict. This was a big day out in Give. As the event poster announced: “Come and experience dragoons, battle tanks, F16 fighters and leg amputations”.
Even though the audience clearly enjoyed the 1864 “amputations” and other scenes staged by the group of costumed reenactors, the unrivalled center of public attention was the vehicles that the modern-day troops – all from the aptly named Niels Kjeldsen squadron from the Holstebro garrison – had brought along. In particular, the F16 fighter parked on the town square seemed to possess a magnetic pull on the younger generation, eagerly queuing up to test out a real pilot’s seat and the opportunity to feel airborne. Helpful, polite and outgoing, the soldiers of today were at hand to explain, lend out equipment and instruct the youngsters and their parents in the use of weaponry, aiming procedures and vehicle and horsepower details. One lieutenant guiding the kids told me that he enjoyed these kind of popular events very much but also that, in a sense, “this is pure advertising” and branding of the Danish Army.
At the wreath laying ceremony at Kjeldsen’s grave, performed every year, the Give mayor stressed the continuous need for “heroes”, military as well as civilian ones. He stated that Dragoon Kjeldsen was indeed a hero, standing up for himself, his country and his comrades, but also that for any contemporary child, the parent who helps unscrew the lid of the morning marmalade is very much a hero as well. Drawing explicit links between the courage allegedly displayed by Kjeldsen 150 years ago and that of the Danish troops in Afghanistan, the mayor stressed how, on this cold winter day in 2014, we were all surrounded by heroes. This was clearly not a good day to question or nuance the notion of heroism, neither in Kjeldsen’s case nor in today’s Afghanistan mission. What mattered most, at least to the proud mayor rallying his townsfolk around him, seemed to be the current need for guiding principles and courageous role models.