Thursday, 10 November 2011

On remembrance and poppy controversies

Tomorrow is Armistice Day. 93 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front and the Great War ended, and we now know that the "war to end all wars" was only the opening shot of a bloody century. The new one promises to be just as bloody - whilst remembrance of those who died then is used as a justification of just as much death now.

This is perhaps fitting, given that the poppy which is a near international symbol of remembrance was inspired by the poem In Flanders' Fields. In that piece, John McCrae implores us to "take up our quarrel with the foe." If we don't heed this call to militarism, then "shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields." Thus, far from being a misappropriation which happened much later, the use of the poppy to glorify war and killing in the name of god and country goes back to the very beginning. Moina Michael, the first person to wear a poppy in remembrance, offered much the same message in We Shall Keep The Faith - declaring that "blood of heroes never dies, but lends a lustre to the red."

In the 21st Century, the militaristic jingoism which the poppy is the symbol of has reached new heights. Thanks to the right-wing "political correctness gone mad" meme, there's a controversy for just about anything - and the latest to fall victim is FIFA.

The international footballing body sparked outrage when they "banned" England players from wearing a poppy on the pitch on Saturday. The English FA had issued a special request that players be allowed to wear shirts embroidered with poppies, and FIFA turned them down on the grounds of a rule preventing shirts from carrying political, religious or commercial messages. It is important before going further to state that this is the crux of the matter and that "offence" was never at any point cited as a reason for the decision - despite the usual hysteria that followed.

David Cameron was one of the many figures who saw fit to intervene, saying "the idea that wearing a poppy to remember those who have given their lives for our freedom is a political act is absurd." Rather, it is "an act of huge respect and national pride." And of course we all know that national pride is apolitical, isn't it? Indeed, McCrae and Michael's poems tell us exactly how "non-political" the symbol is.

This is not to mention that, in the 91 years that the remembrance poppy has been around, this would be the absolute first time that England have chose to request any such provision from FIFA. Only now has the need to remember the dead with embroidered football shirts come up, and a cynic would wonder if there was merchandising or publicity value in this. Not to mention the political capital to be gained from stoking nationalistic sentiments at a time of heightened class conflict and discontent with the government.

A case in point is the recent English Defence League demonstration on the roof of FIFA headquarters, and that with the organisation's u-turn on the matter the fascists have been able to claim victory. Whilst, it should be added, using almost the exact same language as the prime minister when discussing how "the poppy is not a religious symbol, nor is it a political statement. It is not linked to any political party or ideology. It’s not a commercial symbol. It’s merely a symbol of our respect for fallen military servicemen and women who have died in wars defending Britain and her way of life."

Then there was today's announcement that Muslims Against Crusades are to be banned. I'm no fan of the state's banning organisations in any case, no matter how vile its views, but the fact that three different incarnations of the same tiny and near-irrelevant group have been proscribed for offending the sensibilities of patriots whilst violent fascist organisations have never been touched speaks volumes of the priorities on display here.

But whilst so many people are using Armistice Day to get riled up over the wearing or otherwise of poppies - most absurdly @poppywatch taking offence at everyone who doesn't have one on their Twitter avatar - this has nothing to do with remembrance. Even the EDL grasp this, however briefly, when they point out that "a symbol of remembrance, a symbol to remind us of the horrors of war, not to glorify it." I don't agree that the poppy has that meaning - as discussed above - but it is true that there are other ways to remember than taking up the quarrel with the foe.

As Wilfred Owen so eloquently put it;
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.
War is a horrendous and brutal thing which has claimed the lives of untold numbers - not only soldiers but civilians, men, women and children. It is in short the sacrifice of the working class to the interests - military, economic, political - of the ruling class. There is no doubt that those who suffer this fate should be remembered.

There is also no doubt that it is sometimes necessary to fight. The men and women who stood up to the fascist regimes of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini are a case in point - and not all of them were professional or conscripted soldiers either, as the existence of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and the Arditi Del Popolo in Italy will attest. Then there are the other innumerable rebels who have bravely taken up arms against tyranny and dictatorship across the world.

All of these people deserve to be remembered, whether as the heroes of a struggle for freedom or as the victims of imperialism and militarism. But that remembrance should not be cheapened by the stunts of fascists or the opportunism of politicians. It certainly shouldn't boil down to who does or doesn't wear a read flower on their breast.

It's time to reject the message of those who use the fallen to promote the old lie.