War…what is it good for?
There’s hardly anyone on the box who doesn’t wear a poppy in the early weeks of November, presumably because the others’ve all been shot for being conscientious objectors and therefore traitors to queen and country. Cowards, the lot of em…practically spitting on the grave of the brave men who won our freedom from the Boche.
It’s all very well to say you’re against war, but I mean, would these peace-loving hippies stand by while a freedom-hating foreigner killed their mum? Fat use their flowers and doves would be then…that’ll learn em, isn’t that right Darling?
As well as all the proud poppy-wearing, there are also countless programmes on telly at the moment specifically devoted to remembering the war dead, from sombre coverage of parades and remembrance services to specially-made versions of more familiar shows. Most noticeable has been Baldrick on his Time Team digging expedition in Flanders, presumably trying to find the trench where he and his class superiors went forth so memorably to their death.
Mercifully, amidst all the celebrities searching for their ancestors’ final resting places in various corners of foreign fields, we’ve so far been spared the sight of Jamie Oliver cooking up a treat for the Tommies, or those two snobby-yet-mucky bints asking ‘How Clean is Your Trench?’ This current national obsession with soldiers has though given those who’ve paid for satellite channels the mouth-watering prospect of a ‘Gladiators’ special to look forward to, in which television’s shiny prize-fighters will go head-to-head with various branches of the (hopefully present-day) armed forces.
All this on-screen nonsense fails though to completely obscure an underlying tension that accompanies these remembrance activities, as many people struggle to negotiate the apparently contradictory sentiments of being opposed to war and a wish to respectfully remember the war dead.
There have of course been plenty of debates down the years about how best to ‘never forget’ the victims of past and current wars, with the ‘white poppy’ movement proving particularly controversial.
The intention of the white poppies is to allow wearers to pay respect to those who lost their lives in war, while at the same time refusing to buy into any explicit or implicit glorification of war.
Although many do their best to rubbish such a viewpoint, many people just can’t turn a blind eye to the pro-war sentiments that they see as going hand-in-hand with more mainstream efforts of paying homage to the war dead, which of course is best symbolised by the well-established red poppy campaign. Wearers of white poppies tend to be viewed as naïve peaceniks or awkward refuseniks by those who are actively involved in the promotion of red poppy-wearing.
The controversy clearly stems from that inherent claim of war ‘glorification’ made towards the red poppy movement and associated activities, which unsurprisingly doesn’t sit too well with those who’d prefer to avoid such a critical perspective on the reasons for war. Nobody likes being told that what they’re doing might have negative consequences, and whether it’s those whose lifestyles rest on the profits from unethical practices or those whose choice of language might be deemed offensive to others, it’s sometimes easier to lash out at those questioning your actions than to reflect upon what’s being said.
So when those who are working hard to ensure the poor souls who lost their lives while fighting in wars come up against criticism, it’s understandable that they don’t like to hear anything that calls their well-intentioned actions into question. It’s particularly hard for the families of those who have fought, or continue to fight, as such criticisms threaten to puncture the veil of respect and glory through which they’ve become accustomed to viewing their loved one’s sacrifice. If you’ve lost someone you care about through warfare you’d obviously much prefer to see this as a tragic act of bravery while fighting for a noble cause than to consider that the real cause may not have been so noble after all.
I’m sure the white poppy people have no desire to go around upsetting people by calling into question the motives behind wars in which so many people died, but unfortunately that appears to be an unavoidable by-product of taking on a more critical stance towards war. It could be argued though that at this particular time of year, which has been set aside specifically to honour the war dead, those with an anti-war axe to grind should put aside their political objections and join in with what after all is meant as a simple act of respectful remembrance. Failing that could they not just stay out of the way and not wear a poppy of any colour, leaving those wishing to pay their respects to do so, in peace?
The problem with this is that these activities are symbolically very powerful and therefore play an influential role in shaping wider perceptions of the armed forces and war in general. The government and the armed forces themselves know this only too well – that’s why you see youthful army cadets selling poppies and present-day soldiers marching in remembrance of their fallen predecessors. If you want to maintain public goodwill towards the armed forces and their actions, the last thing you want is a population that spends too long thinking critically about the reasons why those innocent young men and women have been sent away to fight.
It’s clear to everyone that there are different reasons for different wars, and just as the white poppy-wearers refuse to stand idly by while they see harm being done through the uncritical celebration of past wars, so too have those serving in the forces always defended the necessity of standing up and fighting in the face of aggressive foes. This would be a perfectly sound argument if those doing the fighting were permitted to make the distinctions between what’s just and unjust, and between what’s right and wrong. These decisions though are reserved for more privileged beings than those whose lives are on the line, and of course anyone else asking such awkward questions is painted as disloyal and even disrespectful to those being sent away to die.
So rather than an open and respectful show of remembrance, in which all members of the population can reflect on the huge sacrifices made by millions of innocent young people whether in agreement with the reasons for war or not, we instead have a situation in which only those who unquestioningly accept that they died for a worthy cause can take part. For those unwilling to add their explicit or implicit support to the uncritical assertion that our soldiers always fight for noble causes, it seems there’s little room to actively share in the sentiment ‘lest we forget’, which is a real shame.
The remembrance celebrations and the red poppy appeal have been a feature of British life at this time of year since just after the so-called Great War. This has been vital in ensuring that generation after generation haven’t been able to forget the tragic loss of so many young lives. And nor should they. But these memorials have actively discouraged a critical discourse into the disgrace that so many young lives were sent to such a violent and premature end. This is reflected in the fact that this country is still sending young men and women to fight and die in wars that they are unable to openly question.
o This article featured in issue two of AFLM: SPG. To get a copy email us and we will tell you how. Issue 5 should be out before the end of November.