I was sitting on the bus during my daily commute this week, when I was abruptly interrupted by a recording of Joanna Lumley reminding me to buy a poppy. Of course, it’s that time of the year where we’re reminded to support the British Legion’s Remembrance Campaign by wearing a red poppy.
I think one of the worst aspects of this form of remembrance is the social policing that goes on around it. Last year, an ITV journalist faced a torrent of racist and sexist abuse for not wearing a poppy during a news bulletin, even though she did it on the grounds that she did not want to prioritise one of the charities she supports over another. Similarly, during my own time as a student activist, a comrade of mine, Daniel Cooper, was the target of a right wing witch hunt for refusing to lay a wreath of poppies at a University of London remembrance service, something I was involved in the next year when the ULU executive I was a member of made a conscious decision to do the same again. A particularly repugnant approach was taken by the Daily Mail, who recently advocated that Muslim women should wear headscarves with poppies on it to show that they are ‘…proudly British and Muslim’.
I struggle to comprehend why can’t people choose to remember in their own way? During the two years where I had to defend this stance, people seemed hesitant to admit that one can remember the fallen in other ways than wearing a poppy. They were even more baffled by the fact that I also do not think the campaign around white poppies is an adequate form of remembrance either, because of its problematic history.
I believe World War One was one of the biggest travesties in British history: Millions were sent to die needlessly in a war that was less about defending liberty or political freedom, and more of a bloody bout between empires wanting to assert their dominance in a changing world. The industrial growth of technology and weaponry during this time was only matched by the industrial murder of millions of working class people across the world who met a cruel and unspeakable death – estimated to be at least 10 million.
The British establishment lied to the men it conscripted, telling them such things as it would be over by Christmas, sending them into the unknown, under-equipped and often as cannon fodder facing a certain death – these brave people are often referred to as ‘Lions led by Donkeys’. The group at the centre of the red poppy appeal – the British Legion – was originally set up by Douglas Haig, the commander at the Battle of the Somme. It was set up in order to deliberately circumvent grassroots veterans’ organisations, such as the Labour-aligned National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (which excluded officers from membership), and the left-Liberal National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, who campaigned under the slogan “justice not charity”.
When I told this to a leading member of the Conservative Futures at a debate last year, she didn’t even know. She had previously claimed that the British Legion was a grass roots movement, when in truth it was one set up by the very people who had orchestrated the war, to trample on grass roots groups who challenged their narrative of events.
I personally feel sick at the thought of sharing not just an emblem, but a whole ceremony with the likes of David Cameron when it comes to Remembrance. Only a few weeks before last year’s Armistice Day, Cameron and the Tory leadership were trying to send troops into Syria – a mission we can now see would have been fruitless and guaranteed thousands of needless deaths. Shortly after Parliament rejected these proposals, then Education minister, Michael Gove, began shouting at his fellow Conservative MPs who abstained. Months later, Gove would go on to try and re-write the collective memory of The Great War, by claiming people’s analysis was shrouded by ‘left wing myths’, spread by programmes like Blackadder and left wing academics. He said that those who fought in the war were actually ‘…conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order’ – slightly ironic, as one academic pointed out, seeing that one of Britain’s closest allies in the war was Tsarist Russia.
For me, the British Legion’s poppy campaign not only fails to truly remember the millions who died in World War One and the other wars since then, but it certainly doesn’t stop to consider why they died. When warmongers like Cameron, or his predecessor Tony Blair, lay wreaths or wear poppies, an overtly political message is sent. The political class who oversaw the industrial slaughters of World War One is merely being replaced by a modern one who have sanctioned many more thousands of deaths since. In short, we need a remembrance that is critical of the people who have sent the masses to war, not one that is led by them.
The fact is that Remembrance is political and the official institutions who lead it do so by forgetting the lessons of war and replacing them with false notions of national unity, or rhetoric of how glorious it is to die for ones’ country. In fact, it does everything it can, in my view, to ignore the questions of class; of the people who came back to grinding poverty after the Great War, to those who nearly caused revolution after World War 2 and those even today who return from wars in the likes of Afghanistan and Iraq, not receiving the treatment they deserve for physical, and particularly, mental traumas.
I think a true Remembrance not only acknowledges history, but actively chooses to learn from it. That acknowledges the various anti-war movements, like the one of 2003, and does not white-wash the inconvenient parts with nationalistic rhetoric. Indeed, I believe it is vital that people, particularly Socialists, challenge the British Legion and Political Establishment’s monopoly on Remembrance. Surely a remembrance that is passive and doesn’t call for change, is no remembrance at all?
So on Remembrance Sunday I will not wear a poppy or go to my local remembrance ceremony, but that certainly does not mean I will forget. Perhaps I will go to an alternative ceremony like the ‘Veterans For Peace’ ceremony, which silently marches to the cenotaph branding only a banner saying ‘Never Again’. What’s more important though, is that I will spend the 364 days of the year challenging the narratives that surround war, campaigning for the fairer society many veterans could only wish they returned to (and, indeed, were sometimes promised!) and fighting to ensure that innocent blood need never be shed on the whims of the powerful ever again.
Jamie Green is an activist who is involved in the student and labour movements, read his blog here.