The Poppy Appeal: Politicising Memories

Thursday, 12th November 2009 at 15:59 UTC 5 comments

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.


Entry filed under: History, Marketing, Media, NGO, Peace.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. misterbunbury  |  Friday, 13th November 2009 at 0:44 UTC

    Let’s look at the facts, shall we? You compare the RBL which supposedly glorifies war, and other charities that “pick up the pieces”. How about we look at the RBL’s manifesto?

    * Improve and keep the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme under continual review
    * Stop breaches of harmony guidelines (deployment rates) in order to reduce family separation and breakdown
    * Provide bereaved Armed Forces families with independent legal advice during inquests
    * Introduce an Independent Advisory Committee on Military Deaths
    * Make NHS priority treatment work for veterans with injuries caused by Service in the Armed Forces
    * Tackle poverty among older veterans and widows

    So remind me, what were you complaining about? It is you, not the poppy appeal, that politicises armistice day. It is a day of remembrance, without any glorification that I can see, at which time a bunch of pacifists choose to make a grab for attention in order to whine “I told you so! I told you you war’s bad!”. It disgusts me. War’s bad, well duh: we’re remembering the people who died and so preserving the memory of the cost of war. If we removed that, we’d be more likely to become jingoistic, not less. The thing that most disgusts me about the white poppy crusade is that it is based on the lie that only pacifists can view war as bad. That is enormously insulting and arrogant, as well as being untrue.

    Tell me, how many homeless veterans have you helped house? Until it exceeds the RBL’s figure, I’ll treat your post as posturing, which gives the lie to the dichotomy in your title.

    There’s no taboo. You make a cheap, vulgar argument and you get called on it. That’s life, What’s more, the symbol of death does not glorify war, I’ve never heard a single person suggest that it does, who wasn’t pushing some pacifist agenda at the time. Your starting premise is thus completely unsupportable, so get outside and stop reading the ekklesia newsblog.

  • 2. brainduck  |  Friday, 13th November 2009 at 10:04 UTC

    Um, Graham, basic fact-checking is essential to maintain your credibility. A quick nose round the websites of the RBL & HfH will give you an idea of the practical things they do. However, I do agree that it’s a problem that these are left to charities, esp given the scale of the problem – 6-12% of homeless people in London are ex-Forces.

  • 3. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 13th November 2009 at 18:11 UTC

    Perhaps Greg you never had older relatives demand your parents push you into the army because it was the only honorable profession, and a good war would sort this country out and so forth.

    You’re right that strict pacifists aren’t the only opponents of war (I think you’re missing out on the complexity that the therm Pacifism has splintered into in recent years, even Hugh Bayley MP claims he’s a pacifist). But you can’t take for granted that people think war is a bad thing.

    I don’t think the White Poppy Campaign is perfect, and it doesn’t take into account the views of anti-statist non-pacifists, of whom I know quite a few. It was partly for this reason that I chose to bang on about the first world war more than the second, as outside the statist agenda it was essentially pointless.

    HfH in particular I really dislike because in donating to them I’m saying “yes, I think these people are heroes”. I think these people need help, but in no way do I view them as heroes.

  • 4. Corey James Soper  |  Friday, 13th November 2009 at 21:21 UTC

    I concur absolutely. I refuse to support Help for Heroes because I feel it’s an overlty nationalistic and political charity; i don’t feel comfortable idealising soldiers.

    I’m not a Pacifist but I do oppose war. Rememberance Day is about political point-scoring. I had someone once ask me why I never wear a poppy and I told them; I’ve been to where the Somme took place. I’ve been to Tyne Cott and several German equivalents. I have had my moment of rememberance in a deeply personal way; spending 50p on a Poppy doesn’t make you ‘More Caring’ than I am. All I ever see is rememberance hi-jacked to feed into Nationalism or anti-militarism by politicians of all colours.

    The fact of that matter is I, and many others, feel uncomfortable with the ‘sacrifices’ of soldiers – often for goals I don’t agree with. I have no problem remembering the horror of war, and feeling the damage it inflicts; which should be channeled into anti-militarism not soldier hero-worship.

    As JFK said ‘Only when the conciencious objector is held in the same esteem as the warrior will peace be possible’.

  • 5. brainduck  |  Saturday, 14th November 2009 at 2:51 UTC

    It’s possible to respect someone whilst considering them mistaken.


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