One hundred years have passed since the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, ending over four years of an imperialist war that left at least 15 million civilians and military personnel dead. And an imperial war it was. That’s not a political statement, that’s what it was, and the remembrance poppy emerged as a way to remember these dead.
Imperial powers were vying for control of the continent as the European balance of power collapsed. No longer were they satisfied pillaging the rest of the world, instead shipping troops over from their colonies to help fight the battles of the motherlands, not that they would get the credit they deserved in the aftermath.
ITV news reader introducing letters home from WWI trenches, “they were often sad, poignant, funny.”
She overlooks Angry, Terrified, Exhausted, Pleading, Political.
This National censorship of the human experiences of War is not Remembrance it’s forgetting in order to repeat.
— Tim Smith (@GasheadAu) November 9, 2018
Young men, many without the vote, were sent to fight, suffer and die for the sake of the power and wealth of the wealthy few who happened to be in power at the time. Despite the waste of life and the social trauma it caused, the narrative has evolved into one that characterises the First World War (WWI) almost as a prologue to World War Two (WWII). It has become a story of a glorious Britain standing up for rights and against bullies. It has become a war fought along the same lines as our fight against the Nazis only a couple of decades later.
Who really fought to save Belgium because it was a small country whose rights needed protecting? It was done for the sake of preventing another imperial power from gaining an advantage over Britain, and it was largely those who wouldn’t reap the benefits one way or another who suffered the brutal consequences. It is worth remembering that WWI was not a war against imperialism in general, but against the imperial ambitions of certain countries, just like WWI was far less a war against fascism than it was against German expansionism in particular.
Nothing as skincrawlingly euphemistic as the phrase “gave their lives” in the context of war, as if death was their own choice, as if there wasn’t a system funnelling youth into the grave
— Ciaraíoch ? (@Ciaraioch) November 11, 2018
A century ago some people joined the army ranks willingly, some were harassed and hounded into it by their peers, and other were forced by the state. What has changed? There is still a national campaign to guilt and shame people into buying poppies, a contested symbol at best. People in military garb have flooded the streets of Britain to promote a flower intended the remember those lost not just in World War One, but in all wars since. Is it a simple commemoration of those lost, or is it serving as propaganda for a state a bit too keen on its not-so-glorious military history?
James McClean, a Stoke winger from Derry, Northern Ireland, has for years faced criticism over his decision to not wear a remembrance poppy. In 2015, he told the BBC that he could not wear a symbol representing the role of the British army in the Troubles. The Creggan estate on which he grew up was left to mourn six of the dead from the Bogside Massacre – Bloody Sunday – of 1972, during which the British Army shot unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march for civil rights. For this, McClean has faced abuse and threats of violence.
Nemanja Matić, who plays for Manchester United, has also refused to wear a poppy, saying on Instagram that it reminds him of the fear and devastation he and his country experienced during the bombing of Serbia by NATO, of which the United Kingdom is a member. For some reason, this appeared tolerated more than McClean’s refusal.
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I recognise fully why people wear poppies, I totally respect everyone’s right to do so and I have total sympathy for anyone who has lost loved ones due to conflict. However, for me it is only a reminder of an attack that I felt personally as a young, frightened 12-year old boy living in Vrelo, as my country was devastated by the bombing of Serbia in 1999. Whilst I have done so previously, on reflection I now don’t feel it is right for me to wear the poppy on my shirt. I do not want to undermine the poppy as a symbol of pride within Britain or offend anyone, however, we are all a product of our own upbringing and this is a personal choice for the reasons outlined. I hope everyone understands my reasons now that I have explained them and I can concentrate on helping the team in the games that lie ahead.
This isn’t about the validity of a war, but about those who have suffered as a result of them. The poppy appeal presents problems, however.
The characterisation of the poppy as commemorating soldiers who died for a just war, and the hounding of those who, for one reason or another, don’t agree or don’t participate, is an attempt to force an imperialist narrative on our collective memory. These people didn’t die fighting for our rights or sovereignty, but they did die, and they were someone’s loved ones. However, they’re not everyone’s war dead, and no one is obliged to honour anyone else’s dead.
Attempting to force those who have seen suffering as a result of our military actions to commemorate our war dead seems like a dismissal of the validity of the mourning of others. We are just in our own eyes, but for others we have brought down bombs and bullets on their homes. Why must an Irish person like McCLean participate in the remembrance of another country’s war dead, a country that has caused immense suffering in his own community?
Millions of pounds are gathered annually through the sale of poppies, nearly £3 billion in the last century. The money has gone towards services for veterans and their families, provided by The Royal British Legion, a charity. It seems odd that there are calls to respect those who have served our country in the military, yet when it comes to taking care of them we outsource it to a private charity instead of the responsibility falling firmly to the state on whose behalf they served.
Veterans are at particular risk of unemployment and mental health problems, often as a consequence of their military service. It should be a mark of national shame that the job of helping these people has fallen to a charity, but instead remembrance is used as a stick with which to beat those who don’t conform.
Additionally, we continue to cause death and destruction, but now we do it increasingly from afar, not even willing to send our own to risk casualty on the battleground. We can commemorate our dead all we want, but we are creating generations more of dead for others to mourn.
When those very people who have lost loved ones at the hands of the British seek to commemorate them, such as Irish Republicans with the Easter Lily, do we give them the same space to mourn that we expect for ourselves? No. Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin, said in October this year that she would not expect the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) or British prime minister to don an Easter Lily for dead Irish Republicans. When such lilies were visible in a local council office in 2014, British Unionists were outraged.
Worth also remembering on #ArmisticeDay100 half the British Army in WW1 didn’t have the vote, all men not enfranchised until 1918 alongside most women. They were sent to their deaths by those who’d denied them democracy
— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) November 11, 2018
More than ever, we must recognise the impact of our actions on those apart from ourselves. Yes, British families have lost children, siblings and parents in decades of conflicts, but what about the impact this has had on the rest of the world?
As we hang our heads in respect of our fallen, what about those whose grief continues to build? What about those in Yemen losing their lives at the hands of British-supplied weapons? Or those in Iraq and Libya who have seen their communities destroyed when we have pulled the trigger? Or those in Northern Ireland who are yet to receive answers or justice for the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of British soldiers?
Our Great War wounds are fresh no longer, but for others this isn’t so, and for much of this we bear responsibility. Remembrance is more for the living than for the dead. There are people still suffering.