It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.
First we have the red poppy, the symbol of commemoration of military personnel who have died in war. They are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or are currently serving and their dependants – there is no question, it is a truly worthy movement of support. But it inspires the question: why is it even necessary? Why are these people, sent by their governments to fight wars not of their making, not wholly supported and cared for on their return by those same governments? Should that not be a self-evident part of the contract they enter into?
Then there’s the ‘To wear or not to wear a poppy?’ question, that rages on each year. Except at times it doesn’t feel like a question but an order; “Poppy Fascism” as some have named it, with people being publically chastised and shamed for not wearing a red poppy. This year it was Jeremy Corbyn, a long-sworn pacifist first. Then more recently Sienna Miller, the actress branded as ‘disrespectful’ in a Twitter storm for not wearing a poppy in televised interviews about her forthcoming film. (The fact that the pin was tearing at her silk dress and removed seconds before she went on air was deemed irrelevant.) Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Conservative defence minister, declared “There should be no excuse for not wearing one so we can honour the war dead.” Is he saying that a poppy is an essential prerequisite to honouring the war dead when for some it is a more personal, complex and inner process? Do we really need a badge that declares we are doing it in the ‘right’ way?
And now today’s papers are filled with criticism of a distinctly compliant poppy-wearing Corbyn for not having bowed deep enough when he laid his red wreath. And equally for his hand-written message in which he said: “In memory of the fallen in all wars. Let us resolve to create a world of peace.” Sir Gerald clearly had more to say and declared that Mr Corbyn needed to “observe the formalities which all of us subscribe to. It is nothing to do with whether you agree with a particular campaign or not… The Leader of the Opposition needs to understand that you cannot compromise on respect for our fallen, because it is those of our country who have put their lives on the line in two World Wars, who safeguarded for us the freedom to speak our minds today.”
Ok, let’s just look at those words more closely. According to Sir Gerald, a representative of the official voice on the subject of Remembrance, “all of us subscribe” to the formalities. Do we? Should we? Do some simply not think about it while others feel coerced to toe the official line? And is being resolved to create a world of peace really “compromising on respect for our fallen”? And hang on, that world “fallen” grates too in its glaring understatement of the reality. Soldiers don’t usually just trip over and “fall”, they are shot or blown to pieces; many will have died in agony, alone, frightened, slowly. You can’t say that of course, but is overtly not wanting that to happen to more people in the future so wrong? And did “they” put their lives on the line or did it have something to do with the politics of the governments that sent them? And then the real whoppa – they were apparently dying in order to safeguard the “freedom to speak our minds today”. I’m sure they were but can Sir Gerald really not spot the flaw in what he is saying, the sheer hypocrisy of it? Here is a man, Corbyn – and I am not a full-blown supporter of him before I’m written off by his critics simply for being that – who is trying to speak his mind and yet is being shamed and publically shouted down and told he absolutely shouldn’t speak his mind at the one event of the year when huge amounts of people are thinking and talking about some of the most vital questions that face us as human beings: War and Peace; Life and Death. Love.
As wars continue, with horrific frequency and Britain continues to display an unusual appetite to pursue them, could it be that the words “Lest we forget” urgently need to take on a broader meaning? In his book Empires of the Dead, David Crane describes how post-1917 “a picture of ordered sanity” was created out of “the psychic and physical mangling of a whole generation”. Some of this lingers on today. Could it be that Corbyn represents a more contemporary voice that wants to include more conspicuously in our rituals of Remembrance, the insane but usually un-spoken fall-out of war, namely the victims. War is not just about soldiers bravely fighting and dying for their country. There are always innocent victims. Thousands and millions of them: women, children, elderly, vulnerable and displaced people. There are animals, cultural artifacts, homes, cities and the countryside all destroyed by war. And peoples’ souls, hearts and lives are broken and made frail from fear and trauma. The list goes on, as do the effects…
Harry Patch, the 111-year-old veteran who came to be a symbol of Remembrance Day himself, conveyed the message: “It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands…” I would wear a red poppy, ten red poppies, if I felt that was the underlying message in the forefront of our attitudes AND policies towards war. Or should I say, PEACE.