Every year the poppy parading gets earlier and earlier like Christmas adverts. The poppy police have been out in force since mid October, complaining that there are people on the telly not bearing the obligatory badge of British militarism. If you don’t wear a poppy you don’t support the troops, and if you don’t support the troops then you’re practically a member of ISIS.
It’s not enough to remember the dead in your own way. It’s not allowed to light a quiet candle in your heart. It’s not permitted to make a donation in private to a charity of your choice. You have to make a show of it. You have to make a public display in an establishment approved manner, a way that doesn’t challenge or question, a way that won’t rock any boats or change anything that the powerful do. Poppies are the regimentation of remembrance. We remember the dead as soldiers, not as human beings. A unique life reduced to a name, a rank, and a serial number on serried rows of identical graves. And the civilians who die as collateral damage don’t get remembered at all. The most personal feeling of all, grief, becomes a public parade.
The poppy does not represent peace, it never did. It was begun by a man who sent thousands to their deaths WW1 in order to gain a few metres of mud for the Empire. It was a way of raising money to pay for the care of those maimed by a state which had no intention of caring for those it had maimed and then cast out, forgotten and broken. The poppy was sold to raise money to pay for the things that the state wouldn’t pay for – to pay for a decent life for those who could no longer provide a decent life for themselves or their families. Almost 100 years later the British state still won’t take full responsibility for the care of those it has brutalised, but it’s still ready to rush into war. Poppies ought to be a badge of shame for the British state, instead they became a glorification of it.
The poppy is not a symbol of pacifism, and it’s certainly not a symbol of opposition to war. Poppies do not say “never again”, they say: “We will remember the next time too.” Because this is Britain and there will be a next time, and a time after that, and a time after that, wars and destruction stretching out into the future in a never ending cycle of death and desolation. Poppies are the cant that covers the permanence of warfare and Britain’s love of bombs and bullets. Poppies are the holy relics of the British state’s cult of military martyrdom. Oppose it and you’re a blasphemer, a heretic, a witch who deserves to be burned.
What exactly are the people who ordered the senseless deaths of servicemen and women doing at services of remembrance? Tony Blair wears a poppy religiously, which is like a murderer appearing at a commemoration service for their victim bearing their photograph and a sad face. Why is it that we remember the victims of militarism with military parades? That’s wrong. Armies should not be allowed anywhere near a commemoration of those who’ve died in wars.
A remembrance of the dead is no place for uniforms, for marching, for generals and admirals. When we remember the dead we’ve loved and lost we should remember individuals, human beings with their unique lives. It’s their uniqueness that makes them human and it’s the loss of that unique humanity that makes their deaths a tragedy. The state sponsored services lose that – deliberately – the dead become an undifferentiated mass, dehumanised and depersonalised. And that makes it easier for that same state to send new generations off to fight its wars and to die in foreign lands, or to come home maimed and broken where they’re forced into work assessment interviews and their needs not met. And then we remember them in the same depersonalised way, and the whole cycle of death and pain and loss repeats itself while the British state presides over another pointless war.
The best way to help those who have suffered and lost because of the military actions of the British state is to campaign to ensure that the state fulfills its obligations to them. We can do more for ex-servicepeople by ending the iniquities of work assessments for the disabled and providing decent mental health services. But the same government that sponsors the parades and the ceremonies is axing the support services that those who’ve been wounded require.
The best way to remember those who have died in war is to ensure that there are no more wars. We can honour the memory of those who died in Britain’s wars by campaigning to ensure that Britain has no more wars. But the British establishment likes its wars. In the 308 years since Scotland became a part of the UK there have been barely 65 years of peace. That’s what punching above our weight means, it means parades for the dead whose individuality is lost in a military grave. It means that the establishment which bolsters its position with warfare keeps causing more wars. If we want peace it must mean an end to militarism.
The glorification of the military is no way to remember the dead who died because of the militarisation of society. We dishonour them. We dishonour the dead when children wearing t-shirts bearing the legend Future Soldier parade with oversized poppies. No child should look forward to a future of warfare. The poppy has ceased to become a symbol of care, it’s a symbol of militarisation. It’s a symbol of an establishment that refuses to be challenged. It’s a symbol of a loss of choice and democracy.
I won’t wear a red poppy. That doesn’t mean I won’t donate to a charity that helps those who have suffered and lost. That doesn’t mean I don’t remember the dead or have no understanding of the sacrifices that others made. That doesn’t mean I don’t grieve for loss and suffering. What it means is that my grief is personal and will not be regimented. What it means is that I strive for peace, not for the glory of an army.
If you’re going to wear a poppy, wear a white one. Remember the dead with a symbol of peace.
My new book is due to be published on 23 November. Barking Up the Right Tree is an anthology of my articles for The National newspaper and is being published by Vagabond Voices press, who also publish Jim Sillars. The dug is in exhalted company. None of the articles collected in this book have appeared on this blog.
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