Today is Remembrance Sunday, and for the first year ever, I have – intentionally – not bought a poppy.
For those who do not know, the “poppy” which I am talking about is the red, black and green, paper and plastic representation of the flower, sold each year in the UK by the British Legion, in commemoration of those killed in war. Started in 1921, following the end of the First World War, the British Legion is a charity dedicated to providing financial, social and emotional support to current or former servicemen and women, and their dependants, in the British Armed Forces. The remembrance poppy takes its symbolism from the poem of Canadian soldier and physician, John McCrae, In Flanders Field:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The idea is simple: by wearing a poppy in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day on November 11th each year, we honour the memory of those who have died in war. Further still: by buying our poppies exclusively from the British Legion, this exercise acts as a great fundraising opportunity to collect money and look after those soldiers injured, or otherwise in financial need, after the multiple horrors of war.
In previous years, I have grudgingly worn the poppy because, although I oppose all unnecessary wars, the idea of remembering how many people have died in war seemed as good a way as any to remind people that war is a murderous and unconscionable evil that is far too often invoked by our leaders to sort out petty power squabbles and economic battles, at great and unforgiveable human cost. If wearing a stupid symbol on my jacket made a few people remember that war actually kills real people, and the couple of quid I threw into the donation bucket helped out some poor amputee soldier recover from their heinous exploitation at the hands of an uncaring government, then why the hell not?
But as eight long years of the unjustified war on terror have repeatedly shown me the same despicable spectacle each November – the very same leaders who knowingly send these manipulated and unquestioning young men and women off to needless and unnecessary wars, feigning grief and sorrow as they disingenuously lay poppy-wreaths at Cenotaphs for the fallen – I have finally decided that there are plenty of reasons why not.
“Remembering” our war dead means nothing if that remembrance does not also mean learning. Learning that war is the single most terrible thing that the state can involve its citizens in; that it must only be used as a last resort, and even then, with as much protection for non-combatants and the innocent as is possible under kill-or-be-killed conditions.
Every time I see killers in government, hypocritically wearing a poppy in remembrance of those soldiers they have essentially murdered by sending them into harm’s way for no good reason – or for all those soldier-deaths still to come, as long as our troops remain in Afghanistan – it makes me sick, and tells me that any meaning the poppy might once have had, is now gone.
Like a serial-killer who still attends church on Sunday and kneels before the cross, these empty symbols become meaningless in the absence of meaningful action.
What does “remembrance” even mean these days? For those who have friends or family who have died performing military service, the answer is obvious. But then, these people no doubt grieve and mourn for their loved ones each and every day, and do not need to be told that their tears and sorrow are somehow more appropriate on November 11th than they are on any other day of the year. For the rest of us, “remembrance” must mean learning, or else it is simply a mawkish and pointless exercise in group depression.
After the first world war, why did we remember? Well, we remembered because there was something there to learn: by remembering those who died defending our lives, we honoured the sacrifice these soldiers had made. Hopefully, we learned that our lives were precious; that their lives had been precious, and that no generation of people should ever have to go through that kind of death and destruction again.
Even then, however, the lessons – the poppies – were ignored. Twenty years later, we had the second world war and yet more precious lives were lost again.
Of course, there have arguably been no more “world wars” since WWII, and certainly none with as great a death toll, both of soldiers and civilians, so perhaps we finally did learn that lesson? On the other hand though, what has transpired in the interim decades has, perhaps, been even worse: a normalization of small-scale wars to the point that their political use is now barely even questioned anymore.
As I’ve said a hundred times: to go to war with Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States was not simply the “strategic mistake” it is acknowledged to be today, it was an unjustified and immoral attack on an innocent country which had not – as a nation – committed an act of aggression against the countries which now invade it. It was the moral equivalent of, say, Russia going to war against Italy after a group of nineteen French, British and Spanish extremists flew planes into the Kremlin under orders from a lone lunatic who once took a holiday to Venice!
But even without all the faulty arguments which led us to war with Afghanistan, what was important was that, following the 9/11 attacks, the question wasn’t: “oh my god, why would somebody do this to us; how can we stop it from happening in the future?”, it was: “who are we going to kill for this; where are we going to war?”
The reason for this, is because war, in the twenty-first century, is simply what you do when some foreign country is giving you trouble: you invade (or you pay others to invade for you). So we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 the way we’d done in Iraq back in ‘91, the way we’d done in Kosovo back in ‘99; the way we’d done in the Falklands back in ‘82, and the way that America has been doing since 1945 in Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Vietnam, Ecuador, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama…to name but a few!
Year after year, following that second world war (the lapsed sequel to that infamous “war to end all wars”) our governments continue to treat the lives and limbs of our soldiers as their personal geo-political playthings, and here, in Britain, every November 11th, they put on their poppies, bow their heads in silence, and they claim to “remember”.
So this year I have decided to opt out of the empty charade.
I honoured the fallen soldiers when I marched on London back in 2001 in opposition to the proposed war in Afghanistan; I honoured them again in 2003 when I marched with millions of other real patriots to oppose the proposed war in Iraq; I have honoured them for the full eight years of the hateful war on terror by continuing to spread the truth about our unnecessary and unjustified occupation of a country that bore no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and I honour them still today, all these years later, as I continue to fight against these illegal and unjust wars and do my best to bring these soldiers home.
And I do all of this without a poppy. Because putting a pound into a charity box and pinning an empty gesture onto your lapel isn’t doing anything to help our soldiers. Nor is standing silently for two minutes at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month every goddamn year; such “remembrance” is futile so long as we continue to treat our living soldier’s lives with contempt and disregard.
Importantly, until we also have a day of remembrance for the true victims of war – the non-combatants; the innocent corpses of “collateral damage” our governments refuse even to acknowledge, let alone record the numbers of – then our remembrance remains incomplete. Because when soldiers aren’t truly fighting to defend us – when they are simply being used as tools by our government to carve up the world and its resources into profitable fodder for power and profit-hungry corporations – can we really call these people “heroes”? Do they not then just become killers, or, at best, misguided and manipulated manslaughterers, with innocent blood on their hands?
Where are the poppies for the hundred thousand Iraqi civilians killed since 2003? Why do the families killed in Afghanistan, for no bigger crime than having an unfortunate country-of-residence, not deserve to be honoured too?
I shall not be wearing a poppy this year, and I shall not be wearing a poppy in the future either, until this supposed day of remembrance becomes more than a photo opportunity for politicians, absolving their shame and culpability in the glow of blood-red flowers, and becomes a truly meaningful day of learning: no life should be murdered by the actions of a rapacious and blood-thirsty state; not a citizen’s, not a soldier’s, and not a civilian. War is hell. War is always hell. There is rarely any justification for this grotesque act of human hatred, and there are never any heroes; war leaves us only ever victims.