The Poppy Appeal: Politicising Memories
I thought maybe I’d try writing this despite how taboo criticism of wearing poppies has become in recent years. That our way of remembering the tragedy of death in war should be so totally controlled by one organisation is something we should be concerned about; memories are personal, but also disputable, and the singular, and highly selective branding is hugely problematic to myself and many others.
I’ve discussed memory and the need to both defend it and challenge it elsewhere. Memory that involves suffering on the scale of that seen during the two biggest wars of the last century are some of the most problematic. We’ve seen the BNP try to use those memories to promote hatred of the type one of those wars sought to overcome. But there are also more subtle fights over the memories we have.
A common question we hear goes like this: “is it respectful to speak out against war when remembering those who have died?” But does it devalue them if we say what they were involved in was wrong? After all, many did not choose the war they died in, and many more did not choose knowing the full truth about it, so weren’t they too the victims of the war? Is that even what a condemnation of war means, given most of those who have died have been victims. Should we only remember our own dead? Should we somehow hallow the death of the soldier and ignore the death of the civilian? Should we remember the innocent dead of Germany?
The problem with memories of war is that they are written by the victors, and yet the tragedy is more often greater amongst the victims on the losing side. We remember our fallen on Armistice day, just as the French do, for a day of peace at the end of the mindless bloodshed of the First “World War”, but the posters we’ve seen these last few weeks have all been about supporting current British troops. We run the risk of seeing only the military casualties of our own side if we limit out vision to these. Worse, we risk our commemoration of loss becoming tinged with a celebration of war as our means of remaining victorious and powerful.
Charities collecting to support former soldiers come in two varieties; those like Help for Heroes and the British Legion, that essentially celebrate the war and “back our troops”, playing the patriotism card. The other kind picks up the pieces, the lives shattered, the drug abuse, the ex-Soldiers languishing on our streets and in our jails. I don’t see “Help for Heroes” rehabilitating those who cannot reintegrate into a civilian, demilitarised life, indeed it seems to just reinforce the mythical image of the soldier.
Furthermore, having these charities allows the government to ignore its responsibilities to those who it uses as cannon fodder for its imperialist exploits. Rather than budget for the injuries, the tragedies, the human-waste of no-longer-wanted recruits, it can simply cast that off on a society that is sold a steady diet of images in which the injured are shown as heroes rather than victims.
We’re in a recession. Military recruitment will go up, simply because its better paid than other things that are on offer. This is economic conscription. Its hard to know how to challenge it, but challenge it we must. And this week it was discovered by a group of activists that the British Army has been sending 100,000 copies of a recruitment magazine to 13-16 year olds, three times a year, and is claiming the project a success as 15% of those same teenagers take up a career in the army.
And so the tragedy of war rolls on, and very often we see images and receive messages sent to us justifying it more or less as if the fact it has dominated human history means it must also dominate our futures. We must accept that other people need dealing with, that superiority for our country over others is an automatic goal, etc. Instead, I’ll commit to helping the homeless and those struggling to adjust to civilian life as a means of practically helping end war.