When Daniel Cooper, Acting President of the University of London Union, announced on his blog that he was due to refuse an invitation to lay a wreath at the University’s memorial ceremony today, the outpour of controversy was almost inevitable. Calls for Cooper to resign, along with newly-elected ULU President Michael Chessum, have been widespread, and the London Tab has run an article simply entitled ‘No Respect.’ Their argument has been that in his refusal to participate in the memorial ceremony, he is not only displaying a total lack of regard for Britain’s war dead throughout history, but disrespecting those members of the University of London who have given their lives in the Armed Forces, including a recently-killed lieutenant.
Whilst there may have been aspects of poor handling on part of ULU, and whilst I personally might have favoured the laying of a white poppy wreath as a political statement, what the explosion of fury over the incident reveals is a dangerous lack of reason when it comes to critically assessing the politics of Remembrance Sunday and the war dead. The red poppy, it seems at first, is a neutral symbol of the loss of life in wartime, one plucked from the fields of Flanders after the devastation and human tragedy of the First World War- ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow/ Between the crosses, row on row’, as the famous McCrae elegy puts it. In fact, whilst it is true that many wearers of the red poppy hold to this sentiment, it is almost unarguable that the whole affair has been corrupted into a political tool.
As flamboyant history teacher Irwin puts it in The History Boys, ‘We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about -the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence-. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’ The poppy is regrettably, but inextricably bound up with an abstract and unquantified ‘respect’ for national institutions such as the British state, the British armed forces, and as Owen phrases it in ‘The old Lie/ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.’ The First World War was in fact entirely ignoble; essentially the offshoot of a squabble between monarchs and nations that grew out of control. There is reasonable historical evidence that the decision to go to war was in part motivated by a desire to quell the considerable social unrest occurring in all participant countries- the Zabern Affair in Germany, the strike wave in Britain, et al. From the Battle of the Somme to Gallipoli, British leaders displayed an utter disregard for the young men they sent to their deaths by the thousand. And where else have British soldiers been sacrificed in vain? The armed forces have killed civilians by the thousand (Mark Curtis’ Unpeople estimates that the British state has been directly or indirectly responsible for no fewer than ten million deaths since the end of the Second World War) as well as experienced untold privations and sacrifice in the pursuit of callous, material, imperialistic goals. The futility of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan attest to this- where now over 400 British soldiers thousands of innocent Afghans lie dead with little overall progress. British soldiers have killed and died murdering families in Ireland and butchering indigenous people in North America, the Middle East and Africa. The Cenotaph, the Poppy Appeal, even Help for Heroes, whilst formulated around the idea of caring for war veterans and remembering the dead, are in fact bound up with a defence of the British state that ignores these questions, ignores the immorality of British imperial power throughout history, and encourages a blind and unquestioning obedience to patriotic doctrine. The Remembrance parades in their origin were at a direct and deliberate counterpoint to widespread anti-war resentment throughout the 1920s; from Sassoon poetry to Sherriff’s Journey’s End.
I disagree with most of the wars Britain has participated in (with exceptions, I am by no means a total pacifist), but I am every bit as keen as the red poppy-wearers to help former war veterans. This should be done using the system we brought about in the aftermath of the Second World War, the principles of universal welfare and health provision and communalised, compassionate care- the system brought in to prove that World War II has not just been about defeating Hitler, but proving we could build a better society. The current government intent on destroying that legacy is defacing the memory of the war an infinite amount more than some kid scrawling graffiti on the Cenotaph. Private charity should not have to be relied on to support underpaid, undercompensated people who have fought and been maimed for what they at least often believed was a noble cause. And how does David Cameron choose to spend Remembrance Sunday? Whilst the rhetoric of the war in Afghanistan is around helping civilians, it is made a mockery by the fact that Cameron is currently unable to attend the ceremonies due to being on a tour of the Gulf states, in order to clinch an arms deal worth seven billion with repressive regimes including the UAE and Yemen. After British-supplied Typhoon jets murdered peaceful protesters seeking regime change under the auspices of these states, our leaders choose to commemorate the dead by selling dictatorships the weapons to kill civilians. Dulce et decorum est.
It is also dangerous when despite the fact that the old tale runs that all our war dead were out to defend values like ‘free speech’, Daniel Cooper cannot exercise his own political sentiment without vilification, hatred, and the incapability of certain people to engage in a sensible debate about the issue. Cooper’s position is not just his own, it is backed up by people including an ex-member of the Parachute Regiment and longest-surviving British World War I veteran Harry Patch, who broke a decades-long silence recently to decry the First World War as futile. It is supported by the veterans in Canada and the US who used Remembrance Day to do something constructive with their remembrance, and protest against the further involvement of troops in foreign wars- and surely the best way to honour the dead is to attempt actively to prevent the further proliferation of military deaths?
Moving away slightly from wars and poppies, it is interesting to note what the Cooper case says about student politics. Some UoL students are furious in that they feel Cooper has ‘not represented them’, and hence demand resignation. I wasn’t aware it was the job of an Acting President, or anyone elected to a political position, to represent every single person who elected them. If that was the case, we should be calling for every single MP, local councilor and student union president in the country to resign. Many of these same students would have retreated into comfortable apathy during the ULU elections, thinking it was somehow cool not to bother having a say in how their student union was run and what it did for them- a trend recognisable here in light of the current OUSU elections. Yet, as soon as Cooper does his job- i.e., stands by the principles he was elected upon- such people crawl out of the woodwork to condemn him; usually as a thinly-veiled attack on his wider politics. This is a smaller expression of the same culture that refuses to accept any challenge to the patriotism and politicisation of Remembrance Day, that attacks people who choose to approach their understanding of ‘remembrance’ in a different way, and yet simultaneously does not complain when celebrities and X Factor judges cheapen the sombre air of the occasion with their ‘I remember more than you’ contests involving outrageously expensive, jewel-encrusted fashion-accessory poppies. The whole storm in a teacup affair stinks of hypocrisy and disingenuous judgments.
Choosing not to commemorate through the means of attending jingoistic ceremonies accompanied by flag-waving, pompous parades and speeches from hypocritical political figures is a perfectly legitimate choice. Or, as one commenter on the Cooper affair said; ‘Granddad used to say that for him, every day was Remembrance Day. He said poppy day events should be scrapped. He said the Royal British Legion shouldn’t exist, because wounded veterans should be given enough income and support to live, from the state which got them mangled in the first place.’ In the spirit of returning to quietly remembering all those dead in wartime, and in the spirit of actually bothering to consider what the experiences of those at war may have been like for those involved as opposed to drowning them in an aria of hope and glory, I enclose my own attempt at a commemorative poem for Remembrance Sunday below.
When Crown and Country calls, you answer,
You follow your heart and you swallow their cancer,
You follow the drum like a jackbooted dancer,
And they sell you downriver to the war.
When the shells are exploding in geysers of slaughter,
When your throat is cracked raw and you’ve no food or water,
When you’ve gunned down the father and orphaned his daughter,
You start to think, ‘what for?’
But back home the heroes are met with a whirl
Of fanfares and circuses, the flags all unfurl,
And the leaders sport poppies like brooches of pearl
As they send you back to the front for more.
They dig up the ghosts of Trafalgar or Flanders,
And if you try to speak out, ‘it’s the dead that you slander’,
They kneel by the crosses, you salute the commanders
Whilst their soldiers are drowning in gore.
Did we ever see such a bright outburst of mourning,
In a dirty town square on a cold autumn morning?
As they dream up new battles to keep hope from dawning,
The memorials will be fed with more fresh blooms yet.
The orders are printed, and the guns are still spitting,
Turning heartbeats to stone with each life that they’re hitting,
When the flag’s soaked in blood does it still seem so fitting
When we keep saying ‘never forget’?
So spare us the bylines, the poetry and preaching,
Spare us the politics, the lies, the beseeching,
Spare us the lives; if it’s history you’re teaching,
Then learn when the end should be met.
We’ve no more use for heroes, our patience is extended,
We’ve no more use for caps and rifles when our barrels are expended,
We’ve no more use for guardians when at home we’re so ill-defended
We’ve no more use for bylines when the news has just pretended,
That everything’s still fine- and for too long we’ve depended,
We’ve no more use for heroes when our homes are so ill-tended,
We’ve no more need for glory when our futures need to be mended,
We’ve no more need to hear ‘remember’, as an excuse to applaud and forget.