Sunday 3 November 2013

Why I do not wear a poppy

It is that time of the year again. Volunteers at train stations and shopping centres, often wearing military uniforms, are selling little red paper and plastic poppies to remember the service of British veterans. These little paper poppies have long taken over the official remembrance day and converted it into a month long ritual from which one cannot opt out without having to take a position. Well, here is my position.

I reject the coerciveness of the poppy ritual, the way it tries to bring everyone together around a single shared narrative of remembrance, with its compulsory yet glib emotions of gratitude and sorrow. I reject the unquestioning acceptance of the value of that military service and the implied necessity and meaningfulness of war in general. And I reject the government's intimate involvement. What should be an occasion for remembering the political failures that lead to wars has been neatly converted into a propaganda exercise that forecloses reasoned public scrutiny of our government's past, present and future militarism.

"Take up our quarrel with the foe"

The first problem is the poppies themselves. The idea came from a war poem that the British government used as propaganda and to sell war bonds in the first world war. It exhorts us to,
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.
The origins of the poppy symbol in war propaganda already suggest that it is not a suitable icon for remembering and reflecting together about a past terrible event. It is exactly the kind of symbol a government would select to marshal the social attitudes and emotions of a nation at war. A nation at war is united in a shared goal: winning. A nation at peace has the leisure, liberty and responsibility to critically debate why and how it fought. It is convenient to militaristic governments to maintain the unquestioning social solidarity of war into the peace, and thus preclude difficult questions. Hence perhaps the official sacredness of those little paper poppies. People who profane them are routinely arrested and threatened with jail, this in peacetime in the very country where John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty!

Governments' use of the poppy symbol have been quite consistent throughout its history and quite inconsistent with genuine remembering. The poppy ritual appears designed from the first to save governments from having to explain let alone justify their militarism.

We can do better than gratitude and sorrow

It's not just the origins of the poppy ritual that are problematic. There are also the emotions it coerces in its wearers and society as a whole, notably gratitude and sorrow. These are generic emotions that impede rather than promote reflection.

Gratitude, to be real gratitude, must discriminate. It must relate to specific valuable actions and achievements by specific people. It is a conclusion of reflection, not a suitable point to begin from.

The first thing such reflection should consider is whether the war in question was worthy of killing and dying for. Did the soldiers we are supposed to be remembering fight and die for us, to save us from tyranny for example? Or did they fight for justice, to save others for tyranny? If not, then they suffered and died for nothing, or worse than nothing. For the foolish dreams, pride, or incompetence of the powers that be, or else some grubby Machiavellian political (mis)calculation. The first world war, which began the poppy tradition, was characterised throughout by that kind of pointlessness (even to continuing the naval blockade against German civilians for 8 months after the armistice).

It is not obvious to me that the suffering and death of my countrymen, or the deaths and injuries they caused to others, in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries are something we should automatically come together with the government to thank them for. We might wish that all that suffering had some deeper meaning or achieved something significant, that it was a 'sacrifice' not a waste, that is was worthwhile. But wishful thinking is not how remembering should work. Thanking our veterans for their suffering automatically, without considering its worth, gives the governments that ran the wars freedom from scrutiny and accountability.

Thanking implies voluntarism, but of course most of the soldiers who died in the last hundred years did not have a choice about whether to serve their country or much of a voice in deciding whether the cause was worth their lives and moral integrity. They were conscripted by democratic governments acting in our name and theirs, though many of them were too young to have ever voted. In the absence of voluntarism, sorrow may seem like the more appropriate emotion. And indeed, the poppy ritual also invites us to feel sorry for the soldiers sent to fight in our name, and their families, both those who were scarred by that task and those who never came home again.

Isn't that only right and just?

I don't believe so. The suffering of our country's soldiers in war deserves something better than the passive and generic public emotion of sorrow. That takes even more from them than they have already lost. Sorrow is what an audience is supposed to feel for the protagonists of a tragedy, actors without agency whose unfortunate ends are predetermined by fate. The relationship is one way. One may feel sorry for their plight, but one never feels any responsibility.

Indeed, the genre of tragedy is one that seems to fit the 'great drama' of war all too well, as it catches people and chews them up without regard for who they are or what they dream of being. From a governmental perspective this makes tragedy a particularly convenient way of representing military adventures. For tragedy is about what cannot be helped, a drama of individuals struggling well or badly - but always futilely - with the great forces that move the world, whether that be the gods or vast military machines.

The aspect of the human condition that tragedies exalt is stoicism - the self-mastery of one's emotions and conduct under circumstances where one can control nothing else. Thus our government distributes medals and exhorts us all to celebrate the heroism of our soldiers, but only in the reduced form of exhibiting the stoical virtues relating to bravery. But never ask whether soldiers who dropped incendiary bombs on cities can really be heroes, however well they mastered their fears and doubts. What their role was, and whether it was good or bad, justifiable or not, is a separate issue: a matter of dramatic plot governed by the mysterious fates rather than human agency.

Sorrow is the emotion that supports this framing of war as tragedy, and thus enables a great public relations coup by government. It presents war as something inevitable, outside human control. Whereas in truth wars are not a natural phenomenon, but are the product of plans and decisions by people in positions of power. They are not simply caused, like hurricanes are caused. As social phenomena they are brought about by particular reasons, which can be good or bad, right or wrong. The people our governments sent to kill and die in these wars deserve to have this truth recognised: their 'service' was demanded from them by governments, not some abstract fate. Unfortunately it is the same powers and institutions that took us into war who organise the commemoration and re-remembering of their mistakes as worthwhile or even Great. (Is it really surprising that the first president of the charity supposed to represent veterans was General "Butcher" Haig?)

How then should we feel about the soldiers who have fought for this country, if not indiscriminate gratitude or self-distancing sorrow? I suggest a more engaged and critical relationship: compassion. Yet what passion is it we should be 'feeling with' the survivors of our country's wars and on behalf of the slaughtered?

I think that depends on our moral assessment of each conflict and what our soldiers did. For some rare wars, or at least parts of wars, it may be pride. We can feel justifiable pride together with those who fought against the Nazis, for example (though not the bomber crews). But more often the emotion we will be feeling with the veterans is anger - specifically moral indignation and disgust - directed not at the fates but at the temporal powers who made them fight those bad stupid wars. One can even feel anger with the bomber crews at the generals and politicians who squandered their loyalty and incredible bravery on the deliberate mass murder of civilians. 


The first world war, which started the poppy ritual going, was a pit of hell that failed even to successfully resolve the balance of powers crisis which generated it, leading to another great war and a cold one in Europe. The politicians of the major powers ground out millions of lives in the name of patriotism, but really on the altar of their own diplomatic incompetence before, during, and after the war. And this was quite readily appreciated at the time. The people can generally tell when a war fought in their name is stupid and wrong. When the soldiers came home from The Great War, they were not treated as heroes, but as uncomfortable reminders of the country's shame, since everyone knew their suffering had been for nothing at all.

The great achievement of the poppy ritual lies in blurring the details of history - the facts that everyone once knew -  into a generic 'tragedy of war' narrative in which pointless suffering becomes meaningful sacrifice. In other words, the whole poppy ritual has been concerned right from its beginnings not with supporting the public remembrance of the people who fought and died and for what, but with undermining it.

A real remembrance day

War is an extreme thing for governments to engage in. That is exactly why wars and their conduct should receive so much critical attention in a democracy. A veterans' day should be an occasion to remember the real who, what, and why of our country's wars. That is not only what our veterans deserve, but also serves an important public service. It is a date that various civil society organisations can coordinate activities and events upon, so that they have the greatest public impact (like international women's day, for example).

Unfortunately what seems to happen is the opposite of remembering and the opposite of democracy. The dominance of the poppy ritual crowds out a real public conversation about our wars, past, present and future. It has become difficult to say no to wearing one and thereby becoming inveigled in its bad faith rituals, especially if you are in any way a public figure. The poppy imposes a wartime question on a peacetime society: 'Are you with us or are you against our troops?' Yet the story the poppy ritual upholds, and especially its cloying emotional narrative, is one that forecloses the politicisation of war. Society and government unite to relate to our veterans through gratitude and sorrow

A real remembrance day would have much less solidarity and singing from the same hymn sheet. Not only should we refuse to allow the government or related organisations to determine our relationship to veterans. We should refuse to allow the government to rewrite our own history to justify the incompetence and jingoistic militarism of past governments. We should take responsibility for critically reflecting on whether the reasons for the wars were worthy of what they took from those sent to fight, and not permit farce to be rationalised as tragedy. We should refuse to allow the government to take advantage of our respect for veterans to propagandise for its current and future militarism. Instead we should take up our responsibility as citizens not to allow such bravery to be squandered again.