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11 November 2017

War is deeply political, and the way we commemorate it even more so

Mourning war without questioning the causes risks portraying it as something inevitable. 

By Michael Chessum

In many ways, British public life has never been so polarised and controversial, so unpredictable, and so receptive to previously heretical ideas. Austerity was once a religion of mainstream politics, until it suddenly became a failed policy. Brexit was impossible in 2015 – now, no one is allowed to question it. But the parameters of dissent, and the extent of the radicalism, seem oddly constrained.

Nothing better illustrates the limitations on permitted dissent than this weekend’s Remembrance events. By the time that Huw Edwards gets on stage to present the BBC’s “Festival of Remembrance” from the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday – which last year peaked at 5.9m viewers – millions of Britons will have been wearing poppies for weeks. Many more will have them on their cars, vans, lampposts, golf flags, dog leads, shop fronts, and football strips.

The proliferation of poppies can sometimes can seem absurd. Not to be outdone, Newcastle City Council has this year erected a crystal maze-style globe to blow poppies around a statue of a soldier. If you want to remember while you eat, why not buy a “poppyroni pizza” from Tesco? For many, wearing a poppy is a simple sign of respect for the victims of war – but the realities of the spectacle clearly go much further than this. The official tradition of Remembrance has a deeply political purpose, from which no-one in public life is allowed to dissent.

The idea of coming together, above all the politics, to mourn the dead of war is an attractive one – but it is a fantasy. War is deeply political, and the way we commemorate it even more so. A million British men were slaughtered in the First World War, sent to their deaths in a war fought not against fascism, but for the imperial interests of the British ruling class against the German one. This is not that controversial. Most high school history students could tell you about “the old lie – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, or that the war dead were “lions led by donkeys”.

Yet what Remembrance offers us is a commemoration mediated by the exact same institutions that have repeatedly failed and betrayed the victims of war. When wreaths are laid at the cenotaph this Sunday, Tony Blair – who backed a war in Iraq which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives – will be standing in the second row. While Theresa May bows, her government will be shipping arms to Saudi Arabia. War is, by and large, not an inevitable tragedy but a crime, inflicted on ordinary people by the political, economic and military elite on all sides of the conflict. 

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Within the official tradition of Remembrance, wars are not analysed, but instead become one single event to be mourned together. There is no discussion of how we might prevent them from happening again. Perhaps, to really respect the war dead, we ought to acknowledge that many brave soldiers – who had families and lives at home – did not “die for our freedom”, but in futile wars into which they were conscripted, by force or lack of opportunity. Any discussion of the crimes committed by the British military – civilian slaughter after civilian slaughter – goes unmentioned and has no remembrance day of its own.

Poppies do raise money – and it is good that someone is putting resources to go towards caring for veterans injured or affected by their experience of war. But in 2017, it should be regarded as an outrage that injured soldiers have to rely on charitable donations to the Royal British Legion – a charity that was founded in 1921 by General Haig – and not the state.

For many people, including many soldiers and their relatives, the poppy has a deep and personal symbolic meaning unrelated to the official script – and it certainly isn’t for me to tell people what they should or shouldn’t wear. Symbols, however, are never just what we make of them. For those of us who choose not to wear poppies, it is not for lack of respect, or a lack of will to remember. Even now, with passionate anti-war advocates at the head of the Labour Party, that position is still almost beyond the pale. But it is important that we continue to articulate it.