When I was about seven, my dad took me to the local Remembrance Day memorial. Neatly turned-out elderly men were stood in equally neat rows while The Last Post was played. I wondered why everyone looked so sad. Dad said it was because their friends had been killed in the war; this day was to remember them. I wore a poppy then and I am glad that I did.
This week, other elderly men are standing in railway stations holding out boxes of poppies for passers-by. The poppy still means something to them and because of that, it matters to me as well, but its deeper significance of lament, remembrance, and the commitment called ‘never again’, is being lost. I think it is being killed off.
The nation’s official custodian of remembrance is the British Legion, which is now a very large, corporate-style charity. The poppy appeal is its main source of income. This year, girl band The Saturdays launched the appeal at a glitzy concert with their song Notorious: ‘I’ve been a bad girl / I’m a bad girl / I’m notorious’. A cloud of poppies fell from the ceiling while the crowd cheered. The Legion has extended the range of poppy jewellery this year. You can even play the Poppy Lottery and win £2,000 every week. The Head of Fundraising says he hopes to raise £37 million.
Displaying the poppy is no longer a matter of choice for some public figures and institutions. I have met TV presenters who are made to wear the poppy and producers who are made to make presenters wear it. I too have been asked by a TV crew to wear a poppy before an interview. I declined, not because the poppy is meaningless to me, but because I do not want to join the beaming ‘wear it with pride’ jamboree that has stolen its significance.
The poppy is a good example of an empty signifier: a symbol that only gains meaning from the story we give to it. To this end, we are offered the foggy rhetoric of noble warriors ‘who gave their life for their country’ and made ‘sacrifices for our freedom’. I have worked with veterans for a while and never heard them talk about war in this way. As one veteran put it to me: ‘Why do we call them “the fallen”? It’s not as if they just fell over.’ While I want to honour the courage of veterans who, amid the inhumane catastrophe of war, could still act out of humanity for others, these genteel euphemisms have more to do with forgetting than remembering.
When I was in my teens, Dad made me watch The World At War, possibly the best documentary series ever made. For one hour each week, he said I was not allowed to consume whatever ‘American crap’ was piped through on the other channel. I remember watching the footage of Coventry, Dresden, Hamburg and London on fire; soldiers dead in the mud of Burma; German and Russian soldiers frozen and starved to death in the snow; piles of bodies at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Although violence on such a scale is difficult for most of us to imagine, first in our remembrance has to be the abject tragedy of war – the overwhelming waste of human life. Harry Patch, the last veteran of the First World War, called it ‘organised murder’. The more fully we recognise war for the mass violence it is, the more it may provoke our deeper humanity to work for a just and practical peace, in which every person has and deserves the dignity of life.
This Sunday I will join a walk organised by Veterans for Peace, who do more than anyone else I know (and with a budget of nothing at all) to ensure we remember war properly. We will walk to the Cenotaph under a banner reading ‘Never Again’ and observe a time of silence.
David Gee of ForcesWatch