It is November, so soon I will be wearing a white poppy. It is a conscious choice and one which I am happy to explain and defend. Around me, many are wearing red ones. I wonder how many have made the same informed choice, and how many are simply “doing the done thing”. The cynic in me says the number and size of the red poppies around Birmingham city centre is less a mark of respect and remembrance and more of a competitive one-up-manship, but perhaps I am being a little unfair.
November 11th marks the end of what was, at least in terms of European history, one of the greatest examples of the destructive potential of the insatiable desire for ever-increasing wealth and power. There is (or at least has been until very recently) little debate: the first world war was sheer folly, begun and continued by egotism and empire. As such the choice of the anniversary of its end as remembrance day sends a clear message: this is a time to remember the futility of the wasteful destruction and suffering of war.
But it seems to me that in recent years there has been a dangerous trend. Far from being a day on which we repent of our engagement in past violence and strive to believe in the possibility of something better, Remembrance Day has increasingly been hijacked for use as a vehicle for the pro-war propaganda of our current political and military establishment.
True, there is nothing new about the British Legion Red Poppy Appeal supporting only ex-British armed forces personnel, thereby suggesting the somehow superior value of this one group over others effected by war; but in recent years, since our engagement in what started out as two highly unpopular wars it seems the red poppy and the commemorations of Remembrance Day have become more and more associated with supporting “our troops” and justifying our engagement in continuing destructive conflict.
Since the suggestion of a war in Iraq brought 2 million people on to the streets in protest, the war industry propaganda machine has worked overtime, and scarily, it seems to have had a huge amount of success. In 2003, probably a majority of the population were speaking out against an unjustified, illegal war. More than ten years on, as military action in the middle East continues, speaking out against the actions of the British and American military has almost become a taboo subject. Remembrance Day and the red poppy have somehow become part of that message.
It is blatant enough to have convinced millions, and subtle enough to be truly dangerous.
This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the disastrous decision of the European powers to go to war. A significant anniversary in danger of being abused and manipulated by our current political and military powers. Make no mistake: it was a war which found its origins in the desire for ever more power and resources and in fear and hatred of the other. With the last veterans of the “Great” war now dead, there seems to be a danger of history being reworked to provide a more convenient myth. We need to remember what happened, and how pointlessly wasteful it all was. We need to remember that there were no winners, only losers; no good, only evil; no right, only wrongs.
We need to make sure we use Remembrance Day, and perhaps especially all the anniversaries which the next four years will highlight, to remember: and not to rewrite history to better suit the military complex. If we are to break the cycle of destruction and suffering caused by war, we need to stop rewriting history and start learning from it.
I am wearing a white poppy because, since its beginning in 1933, it has been a symbol of a movement which calls for the remembrance of war to be more than just that. First, it calls for a universality in the remembrance of those who have suffered in wars: armed forces, on all sides not just “ours”, as well as the innocent civilians caught up in the cross fire, and the courageous conscientious objectors who have dared to say no. Second, it reminds that to remember is to learn from, and to learn from is to change. It is a poppy which cries for the victims of war but which also cries out for an end to the continual increasing militarisation of the world.
I think it is right that we remember the victims of war. But let us not use that memory to promote the creation of further victims, but rather as an impetus that they should be the last. It is time to stop telling “that old lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”
As we say let us remember, let us work towards never again.
(White poppies are not as easy to come by as the ubiquitous red poppy but they can be bought from the peace pledge union http://www.ppu.org.uk/ppushop/