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Laurie Penny: Poppy Day is the opium of the people

A million paper flowers will never be enough to mop up the carnage of war.

On a rainy Thursday in Cheshire, at a base belonging to Europe's largest arms dealer, veterans laid down paper poppies in memory of fallen soldiers. This was no protest, however: BAE systems, a prominent supporter of the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal, cheerfully hosted the solemn ceremony to mark the beginning of the Appeal at its Radway Green facility.

Officials from the arms and munitions company, which rakes in billions from international wars and is subsidised by the British government, watched as servicemen and schoolchildren planted crosses in front of the base. The awkwardness of their presence passed unnoticed in a country that seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of remembrance.

It might seem a little disrespectful to describe Remembrance Sunday and the rash of poppies that precedes it as "just show business", but that is precisely how Harry Patch, the final survivor of the 1914-1918 war, characterised the ceremonies in his memoir, The Last Fighting Tommy. Patch died last year at the age of 111; there is now nobody left living who truly remembers the futility of the war that sustains our patriotic imagination. Remembrance Day has been expanded to commemorate all fallen British servicemen and women, but in practice the events of the day focus on the two World Wars -- and no wonder.

British children are raised on the mythology of those wars, in part because, particularly in the case of the Second World War, there were clear moral and practical reasons why conflict was unavoidable, and more to the point, we won. Neither of these things can be said of the desert wars currently providing BAE with a healthy market for their wares. Soaked n the powerful narrative of righteous heroism, the poppy of remembrance has become a fig-leaf for the overseas military interests of successive governments.

There are good reasons to donate to the Royal British Legion, especially with government support for veterans so notoriously constipated, but poppy-wearing, especially by public officials, is tainted with hypocrisy. The poppy was chosen as an euphemistic symbol of the horrors of war by a generation for whom those horrors were all too immediate; it should be doubly offensive, then, that almost a century later members of the British administration wear poppies while sending young people to fight and die far from home for causes they barely comprehend.

It is understandable that friends and relatives of the fallen might wish to find meaning and purpose in the offensive futility of war. It is unforgivable that governments and businesses should seek to do the same. It behoves our leaders to be mindful of the ugly, unsentimental nature of conflict, but instead the mounting death toll is listed with precisely the sort of macabre piety that horrified Private Patch. When the human wastage of a body count becomes an emotional excuse for continuing a military offensive, in order to properly honour the fallen it's time to question our attitudes to war.

"Sacrifice" is the word continually used to associate this cynical and relentless carnage with public nostalgia for the glory of past victories. There are, however, two meanings to the word. One can sacrifice, in the sense of willingly giving one's life for a cause, or one can be a sacrifice, offered up for slaughter by one's betters in the name of God, or greed, or homeland.

It is this second understanding of sacrifice that we should bear in mind this poppy day. Even in the First World War, not all of the men and boys shot by their own side for cowardice or driven out "like cattle", in Wilfred Owen's words, in front of the German machine guns, died with future generations in mind. Not all of them bled willingly, for king and country; some of them simply bled because they had been seriously injured, because their leaders deemed it appropriate for them to die in pain and terror. A million paper flowers, rooted in the dark earth of this country's frantic military self- fashioning, will never be enough to mop up the carnage.

Of course, there are those for whom the paper poppy is undesirable by virtue of being rather too declasse. If you're one of them, you might consider going all out and purchasing a poppy pin encrusted with Swarovski crystals, as Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole have just done. What more fashionable way could there be to pay tribute to the unnecessary slaughter of millions than with a sparkly bit of political bling?

As we celebrate another Remembrance Sunday, we should remember that the politicians wearing red flowers in Whitehall have cheerfully authorised the decimation of jobs, welfare and public education in order to defend Britain's military spending and nuclear arsenal and offer tax breaks for business. They have sacrificed the life chances of a generation of young and working-class people while making rhetorical sops towards "the national interest", and that is not remembrance, nor is it any way to honour the memory of the Great Generation. That, in fact, is "just show business".

A version of this column appears in this week's magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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