Much as with the introduction of Christmas merchandise, we see the onset of what Jon Snow calls ‘poppy fascism’ earlier and earlier each year; that is, the widespread tendency to demonise those who neglect to wear a poppy in public.
The remembrance of fallen soldiers should be characterised by deep and sombre reflection on the nastiness of war; on the death and destruction it revels in; and crucially, on its causes.
But the poppy appeal in its current form is a convention of social conformism which has been debased and stripped of its symbolic significance by phony, finger-pointing outrage and superficial PR posturing. Around mid-October, everybody in range of a television camera starts tripping up over themselves in an orgy of fake solemnity to dress up as mascots for the Royal Legion.
The Appropriation of Armistice
In 2010, a group of British Army veterans wrote a letter to the Guardian which decried the “showbiz hype” of the “month-long drum roll of support for current wars” that the poppy appeal has become, and which lamented the fact that during it, the “horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored”.
We’re told that not wearing a poppy is a contemptible act of disrespect towards soldiers. We’re warned against ‘disrespecting’ the armed forces by governments which happily send soldiers en masse to be maimed, killed and traumatised in illegal wars.
The media tell us that members of the armed forces are ‘heroes’. In deferentially referring to soldiers as ‘heroes’, the media stifle public criticism of war: the actions of heroes are unimpeachable and the ‘hero’ label acts as a rhetorical sleight of hand which projects the heroism of the soldiers onto the government that sends them to die. Thus the architects of war are shielded from all accountability.
The 2010 letter starkly notes that “[t]here is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict”. Soldiers suffer from higher rates of PTSD and depression than civilians, and a far greater percentage of them go on to commit suicide.
The Royal Legion ostensibly exists to assist war veterans and their families, who find themselves struggling to adjust to normal life in the aftermath of war. The extent to which the Legion actually achieves its stated aims is negligible; they are in essence agnostic on the desirability of peace, and indeed refused to condemn the illegal ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan by citing their need to remain impartial in the face of ‘political decisions’.
Certain issues do not invite impartiality. Imagine if you will a charity in the American South in 1800 that sought to assist black slaves who had suffered injury in their line of work but neglected to pass judgment on the institution of slavery itself. We would understand, quite correctly, that impartiality in this case amounts to implicit acceptance of slavery. A charity which is compensated very generously each year to ameliorate the excesses of a particular social malady has a morbid vested interest in the perpetuation of said malady.
In 2005, the Peace Pledge Union remarked on the appropriation of Armistice Day, the inaugural instance of which was, in the commonly held account, characterised by remembrance of those who had “given their lives for peace and freedom”:
“[it is] a travesty of what that first Armistice Day was about: grief, mourning, and ‘never again’. But then as now, instead of rage at a socio-political system that brought about war, instead of forceful insistence that the world be run differently, the deaths of so many British soldiers were turned into glorious sacrifice. Certainly this helped the bereaved, by supplying meaning (albeit a false meaning) to the deaths of the men they loved. It also helped the government, by providing a satisfactory outcome to a war without purpose, which it would not now need to justify”
In stressing the importance of the poppy appeal, the assumption by implication is that the responses of successive governments to problems faced by soldiers have been inadequate; after all, charity would not be necessary if there were comprehensive public assistance programs readily available to soldiers who have spent their usefulness. But of course, generous investment of public money only extends up until the point that a soldier can no longer perform their function in war.
A Barrage of Poppycock
This autumn we have been treated to many a manifestation of the phoniness which has come to define Remembrance Day. We have seen much browbeating, both from politicians themselves and from their courtiers in the press. It is worth mentioning the most egregious bits of this barrage of poppycock.
On Sunday, David Cameron—his face a picture of solemnity—laid a wreath at the Cenotaph. He did so less than a week after attacking Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons for correctly denouncing war and the Western foreign policy which brings so much of it about. Serving soldiers, raved Cameron, wouldn’t have jobs if Corbyn ‘ever got anywhere near power’. That the Prime Minister felt able to make such a statement is truly astonishing, given that tens of thousands of soldiers will have lost their livelihoods by 2020 as a direct result of the cuts imposed under his premiership. If Cameron cared about serving soldiers, he would not have subjected the army to wave after wave of redundancies. It is as simple as that. Indeed if Cameron cared about soldiers or veterans at all, they would not now be killing themselves for want of government assistance. Last November, Cameron cringe-makingly declared that ‘[w]e remember all those who have fallen and those who have risked their lives to protect us.’ It is perhaps too generous to describe such remembrance—i.e. that of the entire political class—as perfunctory at best. For the rest of each calendar year, those who have returned from participation in our wars of aggression abroad are totally forgotten, having been condemned to rot in the blackest depths of mental illness. Meanwhile, it is as though the innumerable victims of their ‘heroism’ never existed at all.
If politicians and journalists knew anything of the horrors of war, then they would not have prosecuted and cheer-led for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan or the disastrous and illegal bombardment of Libya. They would not now be calling for further military intervention in Syria. If these people possessed even an atom of moral fibre, they would not be in bed with British arms trading corporations, which sell billions of pounds’ worth of weapons each year to some of the most repressive regimes on Earth. Perhaps it is a sign of the desperation of power elites that a prominent critic of war, warmongering and the arms trade—a man whose views are faithful to the spirit of Armistice Day, as originally conceived—was harangued in savage fashion by the press for not bowing like a marionette at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Many of the photographs which were taken of Jeremy Corbyn that morning show him standing alongside the Prime Minister and a few yards ahead of Tony Blair and John Major. Only one of these four men does not have the blood of innocent civilians on his hands. Only one of them wants peace. And only one of them met with veterans after the service on Sunday, as the others gorged themselves with gourmet luncheons.
Every year, James McClean is relentlessly abused by thousands of people for declining to don a poppy. He has received a great many death threats for his refusal to wear one. What makes this particular victim of ‘poppy fascism’ unique is the fact that he is a Premiership footballer. A proud Irishman, the West Bromwich Albion winger hails from the very same city as those unarmed civilians who were massacred by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in 1972. He will not wear a poppy because he cannot identify with those who occupied his homeland. And there’s the rub. In defiance of his manager’s brainless claim that he is ‘not the sharpest tool in the box’, the 26-year-old has bravely struck upon one of the biggest problems with the poppy appeal: selective, politically defined ‘remembrance’ amounts to implicit approval of the narratives that lead us into war. It prevents us from acknowledging the barbarity, criminality and profitability of Western aggression abroad, not to mention the framework of hegemonic dominance within which it occurs.
The poppy is a symbol. It represents, for example, the cataclysmic penetration of Chinese society by rapacious British opium traders in the nineteenth century, and of course the Opium Wars that followed. It also represents the heroin trade in Afghanistan, which has thrived in the dozen or so years since coalition forces invaded that country. But when it winks at us from the lapels of tailored suits, the poppy is little more than an endorsement of Western militarism and the global capitalist paradigm within which it subsists. Its wearers—whether victims or enforcers of the ideological state apparatus—know nothing of what Wilfred Owen called the ‘hot blast’ and ‘twitching agonies’ of war. They would do well to reflect on its nastiness; on the death and destruction it revels in; and crucially, on its causes.