Why I Didn't Wear a Poppy This Year.
"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them."
From "For the Fallen", a poem by Laurence Binyon, a.k.a. the "Ode of Remembrance".
On November 11th, 2011, at 11 am, silence fell over all Britain as people remembered those who had given their lives in service of their country. I was one of those who maintained this respectful silence. However, as I did this, I was not filled with pride at the thought of the many who have fought, died or been injured in war. Rather, I thought of what a terrible and tragic waste of life war always brings. And so, as I stood there, I was not wearing a poppy, as, although the poppy is an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, I feel it also, of late, has been used to glorify that which I find resolutely inglorious.
I suppose me and my family have always had a strange relationship with the poppy and its symbolism. My great grandfather, Jesse Sheldon, died after serving in World War I, and his widow, Louisa, was left to bring up six children alone in direst poverty. From the day my great grandfather died, Louisa refused to buy a poppy because in the centre was written the inscription, "Earl Haig Fund". My great grandmother blamed Haig for Jesse's fate, and after receiving no pension money from the army at all, she strictly forbade all her children from buying the symbol of remembrance. Even down to my own mother, this command remained, and one of my cousins, who was a lecturer in history at Birmingham University, wrote of how he also felt the "granite immovability" of this edict.
However, it is not for this reason that I did not wear a poppy this year. More and more, I find that there is a lot of propaganda and jingoism surrounding our current involvements abroad. So much so, in fact, that you could almost sense in the air that not to buy a poppy was some sort of act of sedition. Indeed, when a war correspondent for the "Independent" newspaper came on to our local radio station and gave his own, very valid, reasons for not wearing the poppy, he was called "an idiot" by another caller. Ironically, she said that people had died defending our right to freedom of speech and as such should be afforded this token of respect, only to, as I have said, roundly admonish the war correspondent for having a different point of view than hers. So, as we go far afield to supposedly defend the rights and freedoms of others, it seems that our own right to freedom of expression, at least in this case, while not exactly not allowed, is perhaps undermined by a dominant feeling that those who do not support our efforts are not patriotic enough.
Indeed, the poppy has perhaps always been bound up with an element of propaganda. The poem "In Flanders Fields", by Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John Mcrae, and written in 1915, is said to have inspired the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The red poppy flowered on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli in the spring of 1915, and in its first lines the poem mentions the flower, stating, "In Flanders fields the poppies blow". The poem, however, goes on to have a somewhat sabre-rattling conclusion, stating that "the dead" are somehow imploring those left to "take up our quarrel with the foe". The inspiration, then, for the wearing of the poppy, was, from the first, bound up with ideas of the glorification of battle.
In actual fact the First World War saw some of the most wanton and needless destruction of life ever witnessed, with many blaming the incompetence of the generals, and the phrase "lions led by donkeys" came to be synonymous with the war. Such tragic waste of life led Wilfred Owen, the poet who fought and died in the war, to declare that the thought that it is good or honourable to die for one's country (or as he put it, in Latin, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) was actually an "old lie".
Despite this, still, today, we appear to view giving up one's life for one's country as heroic, rather than tragic. However, one of the most famous of all Englishmen, Samuel Johnson, quoted in the "Life of Samuel Johnson" by James Boswell, stated that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", a statement qualified by Boswell by him saying that Johnson did not mean "a real and generous love of our country, but that pretend patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest." So, to my mind, with the exception of World War II, I don't think that there has ever really been a cause actually worth fighting and dying for. It is self-interest which mostly governs the actions of governments during war, and, as American author and essayist Edward Abbey suggested, a true "patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government." And here I come to our latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What sealed my opinion about these involvements abroad, particularly in terms of Iraq, was when I read the first few pages of David Harvey's "A Brief History of Neoliberalism". It seems that when all other justifications for the pre-emptive war in Iraq failed, the "freedom" of that country became, as Harvey states, "in and of itself adequate justification for the war". But, Harvey asks, just what sort of freedom are we conferring, by force of arms, upon the Iraqi people?
On 19th September, 2003, Paul Bremer, the head of Coalition Provisional Authority, announced, to quote Harvey, "the full privatisation of public enterprises, full ownership rights by foreign firms of Iraq businesses, full repatriation of foreign profits...the opening of Iraq's banks to foreign control, national treatment for foreign companies and...the elimination of nearly all trade barriers." Such orders were "applied to all areas of Iraq's economy, including public services, the media, manufacturing, services, transportation, finance and construction", with only oil remaining exempt, because, Harvey suggests, of its being a revenue producer to pay for the war and its geopolitical significance. Meanwhile, the labour market was, on the other hand, strictly regulated, with strikes being forbidden in key sectors and the right to unionize restricted. A regressive "flat tax" was also imposed.
Some said that these orders were against the Geneva and Hague conventions, since an occupying power is obliged to guard the assets of an occupied country and not sell them off. However, the U.S. managed to circumvent this inconvenient law by appointing a "sovereign" interim government, thereby making the orders "legal".
The hope of all this was that by guaranteeing the freedom of the markets, somehow individual freedoms would grow. Wealth should increase and improve well-being. The only trouble is, as Harvey points out, this particular sort of "freedom" tends to favour "the interests of private property owners, business, multinational corporations and financial capital". How does this, then, actually secure the "freedoms" of average Iraqis? Indeed, a friend of mine who studied history and has two degrees in the subject, remarked that the war was, in fact, an act of "looting". And, we are often told back home that soldiers are dying in order to protect our own "freedom". But, I think, in the light of such facts, we should always ask what sort of "freedom" is meant, and whose interests does it really serve? Could it be that our own fervent patriotism of today is really just a front which hides "a cloak of self-interest"?
So, as silence fell over Britain, I, as I say, did indeed "remember them". I remembered all of those who appear to have died or been maimed needlessly. I remembered the sacrifice of those in my own family who served. And, I remembered the hypocrisy of the politicians, some of whom had sent our servicemen and women to fight, and who, on Remembrance Sunday, stood with arrogant pomp as the last post was played. And, unlike them, I was not wearing a poppy.