Monthly Archives: November 2016

Poppies are opiates that make you forget: the politics of remembrance and the rise of nationalism

This is a previously unpublished piece from 2012. It seemed relevant now.1

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“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” – Milan Kundera.

It is true that often to resist is to remember, but I would add that historical memory can in its own way be as toxic as forgetting. Remembering too can be a tool of power. What you choose to remember as well as how you choose to remember it is always a political issue. Take Serbian nationalists’ ‘remembering’ of their national origins in the 14th century Battle of Kosovo or Zionist ‘memory’ of a land given to them by God which they can legitimately ‘return’ to. Every nation state constructs a semi-mythological history, an origin story which we are encouraged to believe in as part of the ideology binding us to the state. This is continually reinforced through rituals and ceremonies of remembrance.

We have seen this in abundance in this year’s seemingly endless succession of flag-waving celebrations, one after another with barely breathing space in between – Euro 2012, the Diamond Jubilee, Wimbledon and the Olympics, leading finally into the ever-increasing spectacle of Remembrance Day.

And as if to make the point about the far from harmless and not merely historical relevance of all of this national boosterism, throughout the year, as the endless tragedy of the war in Afghanistan plays slowly in the background, episodes of mass public patriotism have been interspersed with British sabre-rattling political bravado over Iran and Argentina.

Although perhaps not deliberately planned, this year’s intersection of national celebrations has undoubtedly been a boon for the government and they have been busy trying to preserve and maintain the spirit of national unity that was apparently generated by the Olympics and figure out how to ‘leverage the Olympic bounce’. You can be sure they are trying to think of ways to pad out the gap and squash in a bit more flag waving between now and the 2014 commemorations of the First World War they have planned (commemorating the beginning of the war mark you!).

In a divisive time of austerity and class war by the rich against the poor, any shred of cross-class flag waving ‘we’re all in it together’ that they can muster up must feel beneficial to them.

The changing of remembrance

Every year the spectacle of remembrance becomes larger and more and more compulsory. It has changed and grown, part of a larger tide of jingoism and military chauvinism which it has played a large part in helping to create. And over time remembrance has become less about remembering and more about contemporary wars and military interventions. So it is not so much about bringing to mind the hideous slaughters of the past and re-dedicating ourselves to the idea that this must never be allowed to happen again, but has become much more about supporting the troops now and by default supporting whatever bit of the enforcement of ‘British interests’ on the other side of the world they are currently being used to prosecute.

There is a convergence of nationalist tendencies spreading out from sport, the monarchy (the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee having revived their popular fortunes) and support for ‘our boys’ – the three are bleeding into one another and merging.

Remember Gordon Brown and his obsession with ‘Britishness’, promoting flying the flag, citizenship classes and nationality tests? The Tories are carrying on this legacy more effectively than Brown could himself.

Larger forces are at work too. Over the course of the last decade or more there has been a sizeable attempt to shift the understanding of history – a resurrection of apologetics for the British Empire. Apparently it wasn’t so bad after all and we have much to be proud of. Most notable is the work (on paper and on TV) of Niall Ferguson, but many others follow in his footsteps. The Tories have latched on to this (and onto Prof. Ferguson) and are trying to turn the teaching of history into a propagandistic story of national glory – a way of inculcating national pride from childhood. The cult of the poppy is a central part of this – the sacred apex of the whole enterprise. “Wearing a poppy is an act of … national pride.” as Cameron said.

The opium of the masses

In what is commonly agreed to be one of the most secular countries in the world, there isn’t much that is really treated as sacred. More or less the only thing that nowadays arouses that sort of passion is the secular state religion of the troops and the poppies.

Our boys are always ‘heroes’ more or less regardless of what they have done, in the same way the enemy are always ‘cowards’. Criticism of British troops or their actions is treated as blasphemy (indeed as far more blasphemous than actual blasphemy, which no one really cares about) and the ceremony of remembrance and the symbol of the poppy has been used to bolster that sacred aura.

The unmentionable nature of criticism of the troops is used to shut down dissent against war. This was seen before the 2003 Iraq war when it was politically acceptable to oppose the invasion up until the point it actually started, when criticism of the war suddenly became no longer legitimate as ‘we all had to support the troops’.

We are used to hearing stories of crazy Muslims who object to ‘insults’ to their religion and call down all sorts of horrendous punishment upon people who have written or drawn something somewhere in the world which is deemed offensive. This same attitude is on display with regard to the treatment of the sacred artefact of the poppy. Burning a small piece of red paper is now an arrestable offence.2

And of course, lest we forget, it was insults to the troops that set off the EDL as some kind of vast enraged troop-defending King and Country mob. So even if the EDL seem to be not quite the force they once were, nevertheless the culture from which they sprang is as strong as ever.

It was always refreshing to me that people in Britain were largely uncomprehending and derisive of Americans and their secular state religion of the flag. Now it seems we have created our own poppy religion.

In a way a little similar to George Orwell,3 it always makes me feel almost patriotic to observe the general lack of overt patriotism in this country. Go almost anywhere else in Europe and national flags assault your eyes, hanging from every shopfront and often from private houses, whereas in Britain you can happily go for days without encountering a national flag anywhere. When a flag is seen hanging from a window or flying in a garden, the person concerned is generally regarded with suspicion, as a bit odd, a bit of a weirdo. This combined with the generally self-deprecating and sarcastic attitude of most British people to their country often comes as a blessed relief after spending time elsewhere. And how many people know any of the words to the national anthem or the date of St. George’s day? Thoughts like these almost make my heart swell with patriotic pride.

And yet, now we have the slow subtle rise of this new jingoism and nationalism, which becomes particularly focussed around Remembrance Day. The season for wearing poppies and for displaying poppy-related paraphernalia grows longer like Christmas and the merchandising of poppy tat expands year-on-year like Halloween broomsticks and chocolate spiders.

And every year there’s a little crop of ridiculous stories – about Jon Snow not wearing a poppy on the news, about FIFA not allowing the England team to wear them on the pitch, about kids in Northern Ireland or Cambridge burning poppies on the internet and getting their collars felt by the law. All of which demonstrates the spread and enforcement of the pseudo-religious cult to which all must subscribe as a test of loyalty.

The real nature of the contemporary poppy obsession is also shown by the abuse that people get for choosing to wear a white poppy – a symbol that remembers all victims of war. Who could disagree with that? Unless of course it’s really about a big display of my-country-right-or-wrong jingoism rather than mere remembrance.

Lest we forget what?

Remembering is not a simple act of factual recall, or indeed a single act at all. You remember meanings and stories and morals.

So when we are remembering the dead of previous wars, what is it that we are remembering? Are we remembering just the soldiers from ‘our’ side who died or all the other soldiers and the civilians too? Are we remembering them as glorious heroes who nobly sacrificed themselves for our benefit, as unfortunate victims sent to die by an arrogant elite or as perpetrators of war crimes and aggressors against other peoples? And this of course affects our attitude to current and future conflicts – are we thinking that dying in the armies of the British state is a great and glorious thing to do, or a sometimes regrettable necessity for which we may be called upon, or as being used and duped by the ruling class to become their hired mercenary killers?

When I was at school we had a history trip to the cemeteries and battlefields of the First World War. As a school trip I guess it succeeded because I have never forgotten it. It may even have been a politically formative experience. I remember the uniform military cemeteries with their perfectly symmetrical grid of white headstones stretching away to the horizon and the Menin gate with lists of names that vanished beyond sight high into the arch. The predominant feeling that I came away with was that this was sick and wrong beyond belief. Not just that so many had died, but that there was something wrong about the form of remembrance – that in death the soldiers with their ranks of uniform white headstones were still regimented as in life – the arms of their regiment and their rank inscribed above their names.

The soldiers were being remembered and yet their humanity was being forgotten. The individual men were being dehumanised and de-individualised. In this form of remembrance they were being remembered only as soldiers – becoming interchangeable uniform components in a military machine of remembrance as they were pieces of a war machine in life.

Equally repulsive is the cenotaph with its motto “The Glorious Dead” or other war memorials which state “They died for King and Country”. This is the very people who sent millions to be killed based on lies of duty and dreams of glory then using the memory of their victims to continue to justify further slaughters into the future.

Is this the sort of remembering which will ensure that a similar war will never happen again? Or to the contrary is it the sort of remembering which is specifically designed to create support for the state and which therefore reinforces all the prejudices and attitudes that led to disasters like the First World War in the first place? Idiot patriotism, my country right or wrong, the nobility and glory of war, doing your duty, following orders…

We forget the struggles of the past

And what is forgotten as well as what is remembered is full of political meaning. We remember what it suits the ruling class to have us remember but we forget the opposition to every war – conscientious objectors but also the mutinies that ended wars, and the desertion and army resistance.

We forget that after the First World War there was a huge pacifist and anti-war movement and the form the remembrance of the war should take was contested from the beginning: “When the Cenotaph was first built, the authorities were afraid that it might be ‘desecrated’. Indeed, a few weeks before it’s unveiling, in November 1920, unemployed ex-soldiers rioted in Whitehall. Some even used the slogan: ‘Bread not mortar!’.”

The purpose of the ceremony of remembrance right from the outset in 1919 was to paper over cracks in society and to generate a bogus myth of national unity.

Have Anarchists Forgotten Their Principles Once Again?4

From an anarchist point of view, the growing cult of remembrance opens up a lot of interesting dilemmas. Of course, with many people, we would oppose the use of remembrance to sell tat to people, or even to sell weapons (Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, ex-British Legion president, described Remembrance Day as a “tremendous networking opportunity” for arms dealers). And of course, with many on the left, we would oppose the use of remembrance to generate support for new wars.

But should we not also as anarchists be opposing this gigantic ceremony of the glorification of war and the state? Generally, along with everyone else on the left, we try to steer clear of the whole issue. Similarly as with other outbreaks of popular patriotism (Jubilees, Olympics), we generally keep our heads down till it all blows over and we can get back to campaigning about hospitals closures or benefits cuts. Generally we keep our heads down so much that we even avoid confronting the annual NF demo on Remembrance Day.

A general strategy of avoidance might be a tactically sensible thing. Do you really want to confront the enraged beast of media-stoked ‘public opinion’ if you stick your head above the parapet and join the poppy burners?

But, on the other side, where do you end up if you only ever take the politically easy options? If you don’t confront unpleasant things because it’s a bit difficult and so much easier to talk about things where everyone already agrees with you? If this cult of the poppy really is a central part of a rising tide of jingoism, militarism and nationalism, then there might be the utmost importance in opposing it, however difficult that might be.

The argument could be made that one should avoid challenging ‘soft’ patriotism which has few real political consequences (much like having a go at everyone waving England flags when the football’s on might not be a very politically useful thing to do), for fear of giving succour to the ‘hard’ nationalists, who could recruit on the basis of your attacks. Instead one should concentrate one’s efforts at driving a wedge between the soft patriots and the hard nationalists.

So far so tactical. However, if soft patriotism always slides further to the right and always provides a bed of support for hard nationalism then shouldn’t we challenge it too? And if it is the patriotic support for the troops that allows the government to continue to wage war at will across the world, doesn’t that supposedly soft opinion actually have far more disastrous consequences than politically irrelevant nationalists, who might seem personally unpleasant, but don’t have an air force?

This seems like an issue that needs more thought and debate. Do we adopt the line espoused by Billy Bragg that we shouldn’t let the right ‘have’ patriotism and that the left has just as much claim to it as the right?

If not, and we acknowledge that patriotism and flag waving is reactionary, binding us to the ruling elite, persuading us that we share the same interests as our rulers, then maybe we need to more actively say so.

And what of an anarchist attitude to the military? Anarchists, and the left in general, tend to veer between two completely different attitudes. One, a Vietnam-era ‘support the troops and bring them home’ line, combined with sympathy for the working class kids sent off to die for the interests of the elite and rather romantic memories of mutinies and revolts when troops rose up against their officers. And another entirely separate attitude that more or less equates soldiers with cops – the paid guardians of ruling class power, doing the dirty work of the state.

If it was a question of troops in Northern Ireland one attitude comes to the fore, if it was troops in the Falklands it was another. This rather schizophrenic attitude continues to persist. Are ‘our boys’ the torturers of Abu Ghraib or victims of IEDs in a war they don’t understand?

And the question can be asked, if we are all so clear that the cops are the enemy and that appealing to them or expecting them to come over to our side is naïve idealism in the extreme, why is it so different in the case of the military?

There are a couple of possible reasons – people in the UK (Northern Ireland excepted) do not generally have an experience of direct oppression at the hands of the military. Soldiers are not generally used for purposes of internal control. In the past this was different – as Orwell remarks in a passage on the anti-militaristic cast of English society: “Well within living memory it was common for ‘the redcoats’ to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises”.5 Not so far back, soldiers were used for internal repression, and you can imagine that you would have a different attitude to the military once they start shooting at you. However, now it is not the soldiers shooting at us but cops and all that feeling is directed at the immediate enemy.

Also, people leave the army. They do their time and they do other things in society. Often, not being from especially privileged backgrounds and being somewhat abandoned and left to fend for themselves by the military, they turn up in radical struggles. Many of us know ex-squaddies and count them amongst our friends, considerably fewer of us know or like ex-cops.

However, lots of anarchist rhetoric and thought about the military is more appropriate to the conscript armies of the First World War or Vietnam. Today’s troops are reasonably unlikely to rise in revolt against their officers. It seems like romanticism to imagine otherwise.

Also, if we are serious about international solidarity we have to acknowledge the suffering the British military cause around the world – you can’t just blame everything on Tony ‘Bliar’ and absolve everyone else of responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

I want to open up a bit of a debate on attitudes to patriotism and the military and what our response (if any) should be to these things and to remembrance. Do we in some way speak out or act against the cult of the poppy and the troops or do we tactically keep our heads down? Even if we don’t oppose those things directly, should we still oppose the spreading group-think of compulsory poppy wearing and this new wave of jingoism? We should at least surely defend the space to disagree – the ‘free speech’ right to hold and express a different opinion (and to burn poppies as well).

For one example of an anti-nationalist, anti-militarist response to remembrance after the original date of this article see here.

 

Notes

1 I know it’s the wrong sort of poppy but I am at least not the first person to utilise that confusion for literary purposes.

2 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/poppycock-mans-arrest-for-posting-image-of-burning-poppy-on-facebook-is-condemned-by-civil-liberties-activists-8306784.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/nov/03/poppy-burning-northern-ireland-arrests?newsfeed=true
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/mar/07/muslim-extremist-fined-for-poppy-burning

3 “In England, all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by minorities.” – The Lion and the Unicorn, part I

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