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20 November 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

Will Self: Public mourning is the loyalty oath of the modern British state

The visitors who have filled the precincts of the Tower of London since August have been deeply moved by the great crowd of ceramic poppies planted in its dry moat – but moved by what, exactly?

By Will Self

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn./At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them . . .” But did we, I ask, did we really remember them on 11 November? I mean to say, my great-uncle Stanley Self fell on Flanders field, but obviously I never knew him – indeed, I did not discover his existence until years after the death of that generation, and the subsequent one, when I obtained a copy of my paternal family’s census form for 1911 and found Stanley on it. The last British soldier to have served in the First War died a lustrum ago – and he was extremely long-lived; soon enough even the people who knew the men who fought will all be gone. Which returns us to the rather troubling question: what is it we’re remembering on Remembrance Day?

For families that have lost loved ones in more recent conflicts the commemoration cannot but continue to have an enormous emotional impact, yet I wonder – because that’s what I am paid to do, no matter how unpopular it may make me – can anyone make an equation between those 888,246 lost lives and the 5,120 lost since 1945? Or, to draw out the inequity a little further, between the Great War dead and the 453 British lives lost in Afghanistan since 2001? I mean, British casualties in the first three hours of the Somme alone were pushing 20,000; in effect, it took only four minutes and 22 seconds for as many men to die as did during 13 years of the more recent conflict.

The more than four million visitors who have filled the precincts of the Tower of London since the beginning of August have been deeply moved by the great crowd of ceramic poppies planted in its dry moat – but moved by what, exactly? I chanced upon the display the other day, and if I was moved by anything at all it was intense claustrophobia as I struggled to escape the rubbernecking, sad-snapping hordes. Does this make me a bad person? I don’t think so. There’s been a vogue for these massed multiple artworks for some years now – Antony Gormley kicked it off with his Field series, featuring hundreds of little ceramic homunculi, crafted in different locations by different crowds. Then Ai Weiwei bedizened the floor of the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern with his millions of porcelain sunflower seeds that, it transpired, had been fashioned in the conditions so beloved by Chinese manufactories. For my money (and undoubtedly some of my money has been expended on these displays), all of these artworks act at a subliminal level, attracting huge numbers of people who are moved to contemplate an analogue of their own numerousness.

The First War is neither here nor there; what matters with these very public exhibitions of “remembrance” is precisely that they be public: to be seen to be mourning the fallen is the loyalty oath of the contemporary British state, and if you take it you’re helping to ensure that no matter what your personal cavil may be about this or that “illegal” war, overall you’re still prepared to back our government’s use of lethal force in the prosecution of its foreign policy. Can I be alone in seeing more than mere coincidence in the decision to put British boots back on Iraqi ground in the same week as Remembrance Day? What better way can there be of ensuring our tacit compliance than planting in our minds this equivalence between the existential threat posed by Germany in 1914 and the existential threat posed to . . . Well, posed to what? For all the blether we hear from our political class, a small crowd of actual military men have stepped forward in the past few weeks, and in no uncertain terms have said that our best possible response to Islamic State would be to do precisely nothing.

Really, it is British politicians’ fantasy of commanding a world-bestriding superpower that is under threat – oh, and there’s the troubling consideration that it was their own botched actions that have made Iraq a de facto failed state; under such circumstances, what better way can there be to deflect any public recollection of this cosmic and murderous cock-up than engaging in a new war?

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And so it goes on: each ritual remembrance of wars past paradoxically serving to create a very contemporary amnesia. There have been calls from Boris Johnson and David Cameron to keep the ceramic poppies blooming a while longer before they’re flogged off to raise money for ex-servicemen and women’s charities, but what sort of a state is it that doesn’t make adequate provision for those wounded, or the dependants of those killed in its service, out of the public purse?

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Surely only the same sort of state whose military adventuring has helped since 2001 to create another enormous crowd of poppies? Not ceramic ones, these, but Papaver somniferum, production of which reached “a sobering record high” last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That’s a big crowd of heroin coming out of Afghanistan, another de facto failed state. Perhaps our political class should indulge in some, too? After all, the drug was first synthesised in our very own imperial capital and was named “heroin” because it made its users feel . . . heroic, and surely that’s what we want our leaders to be in time of war. 

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