The Politics of Remembrance Day

Every year the anniversary of the armistice of the First World War is marked as a day of remembrance for those who have died in combat. At exactly 11 o’clock on 11th November church bells and clock towers across the country mark the start of a minute silence in order to give people time to reflect in quiet contemplation. However in recent years the day has become more politicised and I believe this can be only be a good thing as it challenges a key part of British culture.

Remembrance Day should be a non-controversial event to commemorate the loss of life during armed conflict, however there are aspects to this day which need to be challenged. The words “the glorious dead” are inscribed on war memorials around the world and create a reverence around military service that marks it out as honourable or glorious. However this epithet completely ignores the historical lessons from the First World War. The diary entries and poetry that emanated from the front line was notorious in its descriptions of the trenches and the realities of war. Furthermore the overwhelming majority of this poetry, unsurprisingly, promoted anti-war messages and specifically challenged the idea of war being glorious.
I bet that if the politicians who declare war on a whim also went into battle they'd think twice about it in future.
I bet that if the politicians who declare war on a whim also went into battle they’d think twice about it in future. (Wikimedia Commons)
This opposition to a pacifistic message in Remembrance Day commemorations takes irony to almost tragic proportions, but the promotion of glorified militarism is now having real-world impacts. George Evans, a WWII veteran from Wellington, Shropshire, had taken part in his town’s Remembrance Day parade for that last 25 years but has recently been barred from taking part because he did not say the officially approved poem during the service. Instead he read his own poem which concluded with the line “Isn’t war stupid?” and given that he was a witness to the most bloody war in the recorded history of humanity, the message is hardly surprising.
This action from the Royal British Legion, Britain’s ‘national custodian of remembrance’, is proof that the ideas of promoting peace and opposing future conflict are not actually supported by the people who claim to honour the dead. I put it to you that this organisation is doing is advancing a right-wing narrative about the armed forces that reinforced old attitudes of military service being something to aspire to, as well as refusing to acknowledge that those who fought against the British were also people compelled to fight.
This second point was proven a few years ago when an art installation was going to be put up to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WWI which would cycle through the names of all the soldiers who lost their lives including those who fought against the British. By complaining as vociferously as they did the RBL showed themselves to be nothing more than a lobbying group for the armed forces that have monopolised stoic remembrance as a political tool to push nationalistic militarism, which is ironic considering one of the causes of the First World War was exactly that.
In the modern era Remembrance Day has become more than just commemorating the sacrifice of conscripted soldiers in the First World War and has now become a time when people are pressured into honouring soldiers of all previous conflicts since WWI as well. This is something I have profound opposition to. For example I would dispute that those people who were forced to fight a war motivated, in part, by imperialism and capitalistic competition, is slightly different to someone who volunteered to join the army and died in the process of recapturing the Falkland Islands.
Also, every year there is a frenzy around the wearing of the commemorative poppy and whether or not the person under scrutiny is being patriotic enough. We saw a glimpse of this frenzy with Jeremy Corbyn and the national anthem witch-hunt in which the Labour leader was criticised for not outwardly showing his patriotic zeal at a service of remembrance. Indeed the broadcaster Jon Snow has called this phenomenon “poppy fascism”; this is a rather apt description as publicly refusing to wear the red poppy, which in another context would be celebrated as being a non-conformist individual, provokes denunciations in an authoritarian fashion.
“In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row”
In Flanders Fields, John McCrae (Photo: Open Source)
The resurgence of the white poppy movement has reinforced this poppy fascism. The white poppy was specifically designed in 1926 by the No More War Movement to commemorate the war dead whilst also being a symbol of pacifism, which after the First World War was a growing political movement. Interestingly the RBL doesn’t take a position on the wearing of white poppies yet many people do criticise it on the grounds of politicizing the casualties of war to push a political perspective.
Firstly, that’s what the RBL and its allies are doing in a transparently ironic way, and secondly this criticism frames all political points of view as equal. For example if somebody politicised the war dead to advocate a specific political party’s policy regarding health, education etc., then obviously that’s wrong, but the idea the white poppy is ‘pushing’ is the idea that human beings stop killing each other for selfish and/or nationalistic reasons. I personally never thought that wanting a world free from war and suffering was politically controversial but maybe I’m just out of touch.
Remembrance Day should be a sombre occasion to look back on our history, and understand the cost of war and how best to avoid it in future. Shall I be wearing a red poppy? Probably not, but this decision shouldn’t be met with border-line hostility and an implication that I tacitly support the Third Reich. If I can find somewhere I can buy a white poppy then I will sport that with pride because I hope it will encourage people to ask me why the poppy I’m wearing is not red.
Each country has political blind spots and sometimes they are very easy to work out but I sincerely hope that continuing to push this antiquated idea of war being noble and glorious is consigned to the history books forever. To conclude here is the final two stanzas from Wilfred Owen’s iconic poem Dulce et Decorum est, which I believe to be some of the most politically resonant lines of poetry ever written:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
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