Sunday, 9 November 2008

Of poppies and the peace movement

When I was 14, I and a couple of friends were asked by the deputy headteacher to sell Remembrance Day poppies around the school. Even at that age, we were aware of the uncritical militaristic culture surrounding Remembrance Day and were a little uncomfortable in doing so. Yet we were not confident enough to argue the case not to do it at all. Luckily, with a mother who was a member of the local branch of CND, I was not only aware of an actual peace movement, but also of their alternative - the white poppy.

My friends and I offered a compromise. We would sell red poppies around the school, but only if we could also sell white poppies. I forget how many we sold. I think it was mainly teachers who bought the white poppies (usually as well as a red one), since few schoolkids had ever heard of them before. The woodwork teacher offered us our first taste of right-wing backlash, getting angry that our white poppies somehow sullied the sacrifice soldiers had made, even though we offered them simply as an addition to state-approved remembrance.

Today the white poppy is rarer than it ever was, the victim of the gradual disappearance of the traditional peace movement. The British Legion's red poppies no longer say 'Haig Fund' in the centre as they did until 1994, collecting money for ex-servicemen in the name of the man who sent millions of them to their deaths in the trenches of the First World War. But they are intrinsically linked to Remembrance Sunday's solemn affirmation of the valour of dying for one's country. The terms in which today's soldiers think may have shifted with the times a little, but the basic sentiment is still the one lambasted by Wilfred Owen, "The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori."

Wearing a poppy is pretty much compulsory for politicians and television presenters, but I won't be wearing one. Its not that I don't think ex-servicemen deserve a decent pension and medical care. Everyone does, which is the sentiment that demobbed soldiers brought back from the Second World War, voting in the most radical Labour government in British history, which then constructed the modern welfare state. Defending that, and opposing the wars the UK still fights today seems a more fitting way to remember those who died.

In a way, the fact that Remembrance Sunday is always the closest Sunday to Armistice Day when the First World War ended probably does encourage some critical examination of the ceremony. The history books now universally conclude that the Great War was a war of entirely needless slaughter and military incompetence, conducted on both sides by aristocrats who cared little for how many working class men died in defence of their empires. The nature of war has changed dramatically since then, and so has opposition to war. Millions marched against the war in Iraq, though motivated not by blanket pacifism but often by a feeling that this war was unjust.

Like me, those at the core of the anti-war movement today may not call themselves pacifists, but are opposed to militarism, and to wars in a general way, rather than on a case-by-case basis. So there is the common basis for rebuilding a culture of peace, infused with a common-sense anti-imperialism for a fuller understanding of the world. Rituals and events are an important part of our social organisation (which is why Remembrance Sunday happens), so I wonder if one of the things that could be done is to organise an alternative Remembrance Sunday, a solemn occassion to remember the dead on both sides and celebrate our common humanity.

It would surely attract opprobrium, just like I did from the woodwork teacher, but to win the contest of ideas, the left and the peace movement can't afford to cede national culture entirely to the institutions of state violence. Opposing wars will always be the busiest part of our activism, but we will oppose them more effectively if we are fortified by a real counter-culture of radical ideas and practice.


Jim Jay said...

Good post, cheers.

SarahF said...

Very good and thought provoking post, James. I too have noticed the almost total disappearance of white poppies recently. The alternative Remembrance Sunday is an excellent idea.