I don’t wear a poppy. Laurie Penny has written a very good article, expressing many views that I agree with, here. I don’t engage in the silence at 11 o’clock either. I know that most ordinary people who do observe the silence and wear the poppy do so for sincere reasons. But I myself cannot stomach it. I think my reasons are less intellectual and more to do with the sheer, physical revulsion I feel at the hypocrisy on display in images like this:
What’s the collective noun for warmongers? A troop? A collateral? Well, whatever. There they stand, doing their best sincere and sombre faces. All guilty of sending people off to fight and kill and die and maim and be maimed in order to protect the interests of the American empire and neoliberalism’s access to markets. And wrapping it all up in the rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘freedom’. The poppy, the cenotaph, the silence, the ‘Ode to Remembrance’… I can’t help but see it all as cynical and calculated. As ideology. As an attempt by a warmongering, imperialist state to normalise the idea of war, to appropriate our memories of loved ones lost or ruined in wars fought for the interests of others, to associate the wars that ‘our’ country is currently fighting with wars from the past that we’ve been carefully taught to perceive as ‘moral’ and ‘necessary’, to control our responses to the latest news from Iraq and Af-Pak.
Mind you, it’s more than just a straightforward bit of reactionary spin; these days people are more anti-war (at least in broad terms) than just about ever before, so the old rhetoric of patriotism is, while not dead, certainly less user-friendly than it used to be. Remembrance Day still carries jingoistic connotations for many, but for many more there is a need for a different perspective. There are several different social and political perpectives overlaid upon each other in our cultural understanding of Remembrance Day. A common variety of liberal spin on it is to remember the ‘pointlessness’ of, say, World War I. To tut and shake one’s head at a war now culturally understood by many to be a kind of outbreak of mass insanity (see the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth), or an illustration of how bad our system used to be, or a bleak but romantic tragedy about sensitive poets. It’s the great noble failure… perhaps with some cynical, port-swilling, incompetent generals to sneer at and blame for the whole thing. (It’s been packaged and sold to us in this way, as has Vietnam to Americans.) And, of course, there’s the redeeming moral clarity of the ‘good war’ that followed it, the anti-Nazi war, the war that stopped the holocaust, etc.
What’s lost in all this is real history.
Both wars were brutal squabbles between rival imperialisms, competing for territory and markets. WWI wasn’t a failure by the criteria of the British ruling class at the time; it was a success. The British empire ended up with more territory than ever before. …