Poppies For Peace?

The elusive peace poppy - but does it do justice to the fight against militarism?

The elusive peace poppy – does it do justice to the fight against militarism?

In 2011 Prince William called the (red) poppy “the universal symbol of remembrance”, and from my experience of England it would be near-impossible to disagree with him. In late October / early November, in every kind of workplace it is expected for people to wear them, in public most people are wearing them, and on television they are evidently compulsory. It is not just this social conformity that we must be suspicious of, but that this potent symbolism has permeated our daily lives to the point of ubiquity.

Despite the existence for decades of alternative white poppies, designed to promote peace rather patriotism, these are very rarely visible (I tend to see one every other year)- no doubt, the supermarket chains don’t want to be perceived as unpatriotic by stocking them. It is then rather a novelty even when the most liberal of the UK’s major news sources publish popular anti-poppy articles, as the Independent and Guardian have done this year.

The renowned commentator on international conflict, Robert Fisk, raises the familiar theme of the meaninglessness of the mass slaughter of WW1 (to which the poppies referred- at least originally), but what has really resonated with the public, however, is the contribution to the discussion by a WW2 veteran, Harry Leslie Smith- his personal experience rising above the sterile distance of more academic social criticism. In particular, Smith rejects the poppy because of what the British government is doing next year: using  £50 million (at current estimate- resources that should have gone to help the vulnerable alive now in the war that plutocrats are waging on them) to mark the centenary of the start of WWI in an orgy of militaristic propaganda as triumphalist as the Royal Diamond Jubilee of 2012.  

This festival of patriotism will have a function noted by Smith, one present to a moderate extent in this season in every recent year: “to dress… the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy”, and thereby co-opt our obligation to remember the masses who died in that, and all wars, into a justification for “our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.” In other words, the public’s veneration and memorial for those lost is mutated by the privileged politicians into a celebration of imperialistic intervention in the name of democracy, thereby transferring the popular fervour for remembrance instead onto today’s neo-liberal campaigns of violence, both physical and ideological.

This betrayal of the humanity of the Commonwealth peoples is all the more profane a perversion because the memorial of Remembrance Sunday was originally intended to celebrate peace by remembering the horrors of conflict and commemorating the end of the bloodshed with a renewed commitment to say “never again” to war. But gradually the glorification of war has taken over, and our present Prime Minister wears a poppy even as he confirms arms deals with dictatorships likely to continue attacking their own people when they question their authority. Needless to say, this kind of warmongering is as far from promoting democracy and peace as you can get.

A publicity event by the Royal British Legion (who receive the funds from the poppies each year) in Manchester labels children as 'future soldiers'.

Sinister: A publicity event in Manchester by the Royal British Legion (who receive the funds from the poppies each year) labels children as ‘future soldiers’.

Government rhetoric will err from the start, when it tries to present WW1 -as the media usually do- as waged by brave men fighting for freedom. This delusion appears to be sustained by a backwards-working logic: the country endured a large war, therefore it must have been fought for a great purpose -a fallacy we could call argumentum ad bellum.[1] Far from any valiant cause such as rooting out fascism from Europe (as in its awesome sequel), this war was a chaotic scramble between empires for more land and more subjects to dominate.

So those who fought in the Great War were ipso facto very ignorant, foolish men. As Smith puts it:

“hundreds of thousands of… boys… were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn’t care to represent their citizens if they were [the] working poor and under-educated. My family members took the king’s shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.”

Let us not, however, pretend that these men were totally innocent. They signed up -many of them probably delighting- in the knowledge that they would be maiming and killing fellow human beings. But it is the government that bears chief responsibility for this, as Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of WW1, emphasised at the end of his life: “I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalised mass murder.”

This was the British Empire, fallen from its heyday but still ruling the waves and much of the world, and far less of a democracy that it is even today, with little in the way of labour or welfare rights (like the USA now), and women not recognised in the political process at all. In essence, this was itself a fascist regime, one in which conscientious objectors to the conflict such as Bertrand Russell were thrown in prison, and those on the battlefield who could no longer fight due to mental illness developed there were routinely murdered by their own side.

Yet, as Robert Fisk observes, there is more than a hint of mourning for this imperial past in the nation’s devotion to the uniform of the poppy. Donned in pride of place like a medal, they refer of course to the poppies of McCrae’s immortal poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, in which as Fisk observes, while symbolising the bloody corpses in the ground they “exhort the living to” remember “our duty to kill more human beings.” And kill more human beings we did.

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Fisk asks “is there not some better way to remember this monstrous crime against humanity? … The pity of war”, he continues, “must… have a finite end… we do not cry when we visit Waterloo or Agincourt”. There is a better way, I argue. Since the last veterans passed away, it has been time to move on and cease to commemorate Armistice Day as a country (an Armistice which after all lead to Auschwitz), instead remembering those lost in war on VE Day or a similar occasion tied to the real heroism of WW2. Celebrating the defeat of the Nazis instead would certainly solve the paradox presented by trying to portray Armistice Day as a liberating victory for democracy- when the reality was much closer to Europe’s fascist masters having to call it a day when they were running low on disposable working class boys.

Yet should this change take place, we would have to be all the more weary of politicians using it to try to quell public opposition towards their own vain wars, preying upon our irrational fears that this year’s enemy (+ family) might present a threat to our freedom akin to the Third Reich, when in fact they pale by comparison, and our own leaders in milking those fears more closely resemble totalitarians by the day.

What should we do instead then, in the meantime? Should we wear the white poppy (or the green, or purple, or rainbow, or whatever)? I don’t think so. So far the white poppy has failed as an instrument of alternative culture, and I would put this down to its negative symbolism. It has not come to represent peace, but simply ‘not-poppy’. That is, an inversion of the poppy while maintaining the same form. In order for a truly subversive alternative we need a symbol of an entirely different form altogether.  And in accordance with our need to shift our focus from imperial glory, to sacrifice and heroism, this must not, like the poppy, be a symbol intrinsically linked to WW1. Instead it could represent an ideal like anti-fascism.

So for next year, when the government is turning the pomp and ceremony up to 11, I certainly do not recommend wearing a poppy- even a white one. Rather, we should subvert the proceedings by refusing to acknowledge them or giving them any legitimacy. Remembrance is indeed an important humanistic virtue, and it is necessary that we continue to learn from the past, perhaps like Harry Leslie Smith, by holding a memorial for the dead in private, or perhaps doing so among our local community. As long as future generations are still amused by Blackadder Goes Forth, I think we will have remembered WW1 enough.

We should remember wounded and fallen soldiers certainly not necessarily as heroes, nor, importantly, as simple victims either, but rather as human beings. What we simply cannot risk doing, however, is remembering them by means of the politico-military propaganda machine of Her Majesty and her government. Not one inch to militarism and the bloodshed it facilitates, not ever! [2]

Acknowledgements

[1] Or a fallacious appeal ‘from war’. Thanks to Peter Dennis for this term.

[2] Thanks to Sean Oakley for this expression.

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