In the UK Remembrance Day is also called as Poppy Day, inaugurated to mark the end of the World War 1 in 1918.
November is the month when people remember the millions of lives lost in the battle of right against wrong.”
So said the Belfast Newsletter in an editorial last week, concluding that we should all “wear our poppy with pride.”
The editorial spelt out what it is we should be proud of.
“Our servicemen and women are still doing their duty in far-off lands around the world…Military personnel based in Northern Ireland have just returned from the war in Afghanistan, where the battle is being fought up close and personal. They know the cost of serving their country.”
And so, too, in many cases, do distraught families left behind. The question is, should we contemplate this vista with pride? Should we concur in the implicit message of the poppy that it is sweet and fitting for young men or women from Ballymena or Ballymagroarty to bleed their last by the roadside in some dusty corner of a distant land?
Is what’s happening in Helmand “a battle of right against wrong”? Was the relentless pressure for displays of the poppy in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday an expression of ethical idealism?
All the dead of the Afghan war should, of course, be remembered. And it should be remembered, too, that the vast majority of the fallen are Afghanis. But pride? Ought they not rather be remembered with anger? Just as we should recall the unnumbered dead of World War One not with reverence but with rage? Then, as now, young people fresh-faced from school were flung to their death like fistfuls of chaff for no cause that any working-class person had an interest in. The millions died so a tiny elite could rule the waves and rob the world.
The purpose of the poppy is to sentimentalize this slaughter, to conceal a crime against humanity under a cloak of soft emotion. It has become fashionable in the last 15 years to project World War One, and in particular the stomach-churning carnage at the Somme, as an event around which Irish Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists, might come together in sombre unity. Did not Orange and Green stand and fight and die together? Can we not find a sense of oneness now in consecrating ourselves to that memory? Many leaders of Nationalism North and South seem increasingly to agree, and to prize their allocated places in the valedictory ensembles.
In fact, in World War One, Catholics and Protestants alike were treated like dirt and trampled into the mud. The only good reason regularly to recall these horrors is to stiffen our resolve that they must never happen again. There’s a thought we could usefully unite around. But Remembrance Day and the poppy, as the Newsletter contentedly noted, is not about ending the insanity and suffering of useless war but about taking pride in past wars so as to prepare the way for the wars of the future.
The English comedian Jimmy Carr landed himself in bother last week with a joke about amputees returned from Afghanistan ensuring British success in future paralympics. Not in the best of taste, right enough. But nowhere near as insulting to the dead and maimed of Britain’s imperial adventures as the splashes of crimson on the lapels of political bosses who have drunk deep on the red wine of the battlefield.
Thinking of the latest British deaths in Afghanistan, my mind turned to Peter Brierley, the Yorkshire man whose son, Shaun, died in southern Iraq in March 2003 and who, at the memorial service in St. Paul’s last month, turned away from Tony Blair, telling him, “I’m not shaking your hand, you’ve got blood on it”. And to Lance Corporal Joe Glenton from Norwich, facing court martial for refusing to return to fight in Afghanistan. And to Siegfried Sassoon, poet, captain in the Royal Welch Fusilers and winner of the Military Cross, whose “A Soldier’s Declaration” in July 1917 earned him the wrath of the war-mongers and the respect of all who love life:
“I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
“I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.”
EAMONN McCANN can be reached at Eamonderry@aol.com