Remembering What?

“On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we fall silent and bow our heads to remember the fallen men who so bravely made the final sacrifice…” Yadda yadda yadda! Every November it’s the same story around the same death cult – and apparently apolitical – poppy festival about boys in trenches dying by the dozen for “our freedom,” and offering up the highest sacrifice for king and country. Quite frankly it’s ridiculous.

There is nothing wrong with commemorating those who have died in war, and no doubt there was a time when the poppy carried on its tiny petals the awesome weight of profound heartbreak and the immeasurable grief and pain of loss. As all symbols do, the poppy has a lifecycle, and over the past century the poppy has been appropriated and re-appropriated to the end that it bears scant resemblance to Anna Guérin’s 1921 London appeal. Today it has become a contested symbol of a contested history and a boundary marker in a new conflict rather than the declaration of “Never Again” that had been its original intent.

Many people continue to wear the poppy as a mark of respect for those who died as a result of Britain’s countless imperial wars. Some have served in the armed forces, others have family and loved ones who have served, and some have lost family, friends, and loved ones who served. No one in their right mind is going to take this poppy – a symbol of their personal memory – from them. The purpose here is to challenge the other poppy; the counterfeit remembrance of nationalistic fictions and the imposition of fascistic conformity and fictive Britishness.

The Royal British Legion raises funds every year for men and women who have served in the British armed forces. Alongside the other things this money is used for it provides much needed medical resources for those whose bodies have been broken in the violence and bloodshed of Britain’s many conflicts, and this is commendable. Yet the British Legion has never once sent young women and men into battle. It is a charitable organisation that willingly picks up the tab of caring for human beings who were sent to war by their own government at a time when ex-service men and women are taking their own lives as a result of that government’s indifference and its horrific programme of welfare cuts and benefits sanctions. No one loves the British Legion more than the British government.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s cynical election campaign war on the Falkland Islands the poppy has been given another use by London. It has become a rallying post not to ideas of peace and reconciliation but false ideologies of martial glory, whitewashing the brutality that was the exploits of the British Empire with a veneer of a new hyper militaristic patriotism. This shapeshifting symbol has become both a justification for the injustices of the past and a promise of moral protection for the horrors of the future.

As a sign of the remembrance of sacrifice it is – and has always been – a troubling contradiction. The vast majority of those who wear it remember nothing. They, like the Cookie Monster, were not there. It is worn in this new media context for no other reason than it must be seen to be worn, and at that as a statement of conservative political intent. Celebrity television hosts wear it as mindlessly as children’s puppets – for the cameras to show their present Britishness rather than their genuine heartache and sorrow in the face of war. Newscasters and news editors are seen to wear it as they spitefully delegitimise refugees fleeing Britain’s war in Syria as “migrants.” This poppy remembers nothing. It is an affirmation of the right of Westminster to wage morally bankrupt wars in the here and now.

What “sacrifice” is the futility of war? What God worth our worship accepts the sweet aroma of soldiers’ flesh being burnt upon the fiery alters of warfare? There is no sacrifice in war, there is only suffering and death – and for what?

Other than the real merit of a just war, say to liberate the death camps of genocide, what is the suffering and death of modern conflict for? Perhaps it is about revenge; to put working class boots on the ground in order to get payback for terrorism. Is something as base as vengeance worth the price of a poppy? Is it worth the cost in lives? If this were truly the case then the British government, responsible for making this sacrifice, wouldn’t now be complicit in funding, training, and arming groups like Al-Qaeda to be anti-government “rebels” in Syria.

The summer before last I went to the cemetery at Tyne Cot, the resting place of almost 12,000 “Great War” soldiers. Among the rows and rows of lost boys lie the mortal remains of one Private James S. Reid; a Royal Scots Fusilier, and my great-grand-uncle. Most of those buried around him are nameless, and in the fields all over Flanders are to be found the unburied bones of the thousands left to the birds in no-man’s-land.

At his grave, as the first member of my family ever to pay him a visit in the one hundred years he has rested there, I broke down and cried. He was 29 – older than average, but still younger than my baby brother. I wept not a tear for the nonsense of his sacrifice or for the memory of a young man I had never met, but for the fact that he was ever there. Like the nameless – “known unto God” – thousands all around him he died for nothing.

The present incarnation of the poppy doesn’t remember Jim. It never knew him. Those who sent him never knew him, and nor did they care where or when or how he died. He was blown to pieces during the Battle of Loos for nothing more noble than the imperial ambitions of an establishment that left the knowing of his name to God. Poor Jim is alive and dead and alive and dead over and over in all the graves of all the soldiers from 1915 to this morning, and the knowing of their names – and the names of all the civilians; the children, the old folk, the sick – are left for God to know.

What poppy remembers or knows all of this – all of these? What poppy now carries the burden of all their tormented souls? On this eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, when all the rememberers quit their warmongering talk for a mere minute, I’m not going to keep quiet. I’m going to scream as loud and for as long as I can. Maybe they’ll remember that.

The Butterfly Rebellion
Jason Michael
Ayrshire, Scotland