Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Whilst some of my blogging, and all my articles, are there to try to line up an eloquent string of ideas, to arrange things you know with things you don't, and thus give new insight and a strong solid final conclusion, I do like having this space where I can chuck things around that I see both sides of.

One of the worst things about this outsized brain we humans have is that we can believe in contradictory ideas simultaneously, even act upon them both simultaneously, without it really troubling us.

And until we actually accept this as part of our hardwiring and stop assaulting people for hypocrisy we are never going to understand humanity, and so will actually undermine ourselves and be condemned to more stupidity rather than less.

Which is a sweeping profound way of launching into another one of the topics like voting where I see both sides.

Remembrance day.

In my mid teens I was fascinated by the history of the First World War. It was such an incredible story, so far removed from anything I knew, a time when imperialism, patriotism, militarism, eugenics and philosophies that blended them were commonplace and credible. It was amazing how easily that war all got started and how, like any transnational mass industrial process, once it was up and running it was almost impossible to stop.

The social change was equally staggering. The patriotism swiftly gave way to cynicism, epitomised in the image of soldiers marching along mile after mile singing, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, 'we're here because we're here because we're here because we're here...'.

The smashing of old certainties and trust laid the ground out for unrest and radicalism right across Europe in the 1920s and 30s.

The fighting of WW2 isn't quite the good vs evil we're told it is. In the UK we're told we won it with a bit of help from the Americans. In the USA, they're told they won it with a bit of help from the Brits. We all like to ignore the other countries involved, especially the far larger part the Soviet Union played, fighting bitter battles and losing far more of their population (a third of all the dead of WW2 were Soviets). One friend I pointed this out to was incredulous and accused me of 'defending Stalin'.

The British historian Norman Davies' Warsaw 44 is a clear illustration of the moral murkiness of all the Allies. The Americans like to see it as their one great war of goodness, a war to rid the world of a racist militaristic regime. The Americans sent racially segregated troops to do the fighting.

But this isn't the real issue for me. It's not the rights and wrongs of the cases for any given war, it's about remembrance of wars and the sacrifices made by the generations that endured them.

Two generations running we took the healthy young men of Europe and decimated them. We 21st century kids have no frame of reference for it, nothing with which to compare it, simply no idea what that really means.

There are a lot of reasons for remembrance. Some people do it as a nationalistic supremacist thing. Some do it to connect with their military heritage and so feel ennobled with the sacrifice, the halting of Nazism, or some other element they see, hoping some of that glory will rub off on their current cause. These people are entirely at odds with those of us who want remembrance to be about commemorating the appalling loss of life of so many people in such conditions, who want it to be a stark reminder of what work we have to do to prevent it recurring.

I can't fault the analysis and point made with characteristic elegance in The Great War by genius singer-songwriter Philip Jeays

It was a great war, The Great War,
The greatest war there's ever been
It was 'a war to end all wars'
It didn't, but that's how it seemed

And you stand there with your poppy
as a tribute to the ones
who gave their lives for nothing
for the fathers and the sons
then the next day you go out
and buy your kids toy guns
well go on, and why not
you've got to teach them while they're young

It was a great war, The Great War,
the greatest war we've ever seen
we killed their side, we killed our side
we killed anybody in between

It was a great war, The Great War,
the greatest chance we ever got
to die for our country
or if not then to be shot

And you stand there in your silence
just like we used to do
like you were waiting for their whistle
for their orders to come through
can't you see you're still doing
just what they tell you to
remember what they did to us
they could do to you

It was a great war, The Great War,
but you led us up the garden path
and still you lead us every year
up to the cenotaph

And you stand there, politicians,
wiping tears from your eyes
with the hands that shake the hands
of the dictators you supply
well I cannot see the honour
nor the glory, nor the pride
and I will not wear your poppy
and I will not stand silent by

Like Jeays, I do not see the honour, nor the glory, nor the pride.

I spent several summers on the battlefields of the Somme (I took the picture of the cross of sacrifice in the With Satan On Our Side post at Carnoy cemetary in July 1985), I met veterans, and all of it reinforced the fact that the soldiers were hoodwinked and betrayed, and knew it. As Somme veteran Captain G Jackson said when revisiting the battlefields in July 1996, 'war's a waste of time, a complete waste of time. It serves nothing and it proves nothing'.

For us to see the sacrifice of those people as something noble and glorious is to betray them ourselves.

The present day wars are the same, still using colonial troops, still gathering young men from the poorest areas to send in to battle to fight for resources for the wealthy. And, just like before, the soldiers and their families know it and say it. As Michael Moore points out in Fahrenheit 9/11, things would be different if those who order a war sent their kids in, or had to lead the battle personally.

Yet should we let the fact that generals stand at the cenotaph stop us having any commemoration?

If we do that, don't we risk leaving all remembrance to those who would continue the division and killing? The kind of scumfucks who changed the name of the day in the USA to Veterans Day, making it a day for military parades and veneration of those on our side who came back, rather than a day for remembering all who were sacrificed.

Remembrance is important, and it's just as important that it be done collectively and inclusively. Wearing a poppy is the only way we have of doing that.

The fact that different people's reasons for wearing one are various and contradictory is not enough to make me give all conspicuous remembrance up to the militarists.

I know I run the risk of being misinterpreted and seen to reinforce the betrayal; but not to wilfully display remembrance feels like a far greater betrayal.

UPDATE 12 Nov 04: Well despite all that stuff at the start about it being indecisive, reading this post back I realised that whilst it does weigh up both sides, there is a definite line of argument and conclusion, so I rejigged it a bit and made it into an article which has been published here.

1 comment:

scarletharlot69 said...

Hi Merrick

agree with your central thesis that we must remember that I at least am not yet of a generation that was slaughtered, like my grandparent's generation. Not in old england anyway. We did not do the vietnam thing thankfully.

I sort of have some aversion to the red poppy (no aversion to the Republican British Legion who do a splendid job of housing veterans of the war against facism including my late grandfather), but since I cannot find a white one.

Peace and Love