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No Decorum: We Need Better Than The New Jingoism Of Remembrance
Luke Turner , November 11th, 2015 09:30

As the mainstream media scrabble to politicise the wearing of the poppy, Luke Turner asks if our commemoration of our war dead is being taken over by nationalism, jingoism and, even more troublingly, corporate interests. Photo: Wikipedia commons.

At the start of each November I used to make sure that one evening I'd travel home from work via Liverpool Street. The station was one of the first places in London where you could buy a poppy, usually from an old boy with a chest full of medals. I'd awkwardly bung a few quid into the tin in exchange for the paper flower and plastic stalk, knowing that my generation had by and large escaped having to face the unimaginable grimness of warfare that was a fact of life for most of those that had gone before. I frequently found it to be an emotional experience.

Yet this year, feeling an increasing discomfort about how war is commemorated, remembered, studied and explored in Britain, I've still to acquire one. In Europe, the 20th Century looms over the present, with different relationships to historical memory, suffering and guilt. Look out of the window as the Eurostar speeds to Paris or Brussels and tidy cemeteries from the First World War flash white against the flat green of the wet landscape that sucked down millions of lives. Your train will have been watched by desperate citizens from the Middle East, refugees from persecution and wars that have their bloody roots in the post-Ottoman settlement from 1918 to 1922. In Russia it feels that the 20th Century has never really ended.

Each cemetery in Berlin has an area devoted to civilian victims of British and American bombing and the brutal Red Army advance at the end of World War Two. At the St Thomas-Kirchhof, just under the flight path into the old Tempelhof airfield, a few hundred square metres are surrounded by a hedge. "Anonyme Gräber" is written on a simple short black crucifix with a pot at its feet. In it are a yellow and white flower. Across the path behind another hedge, thousands of small black slabs mark the graves of one, two or three people, some with full names and dates of birth and death. Most of these lives, young and old, ended between March and May 1945.

I visited St Thomas-Kirchhof a week before Remembrance Sunday in the UK as the 'controversy' as to whether or not Jeremy Corbyn would wear a poppy continued to bubble under the surface. The contrast was startling. I also visited the huge Soviet war memorial in Treptow Park, a grandiose and totalitarian monument to the defeat of totalitarianism, the serpent eating its own tail.

Yet who's to say this is much more vulgar than what has taken place in the UK over the past week or so? I returned to the country to find that the tone surrounding remembrance week had become strident and shrill. The Sun's front page, accusing Corbyn of delivering an insufficiently pronounced bow, was as offensive as it was ludicrous. Former Tory defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth harrumphed that Corbyn had failed to realise that the ceremony “requires complete commitment”, almost as if he wanted the bearded pacifist to time travel back to Vimy Ridge and head valiantly over the top himself. My flatmate has chosen this year to wear a white poppy for peace, and was abused on the street for it. The Telegraph, meanwhile, has gone so far as to write a feature under the headline 'Why British Muslims need a 'poppy hijab' to remember World War One', perhaps forgetting that half a million Muslims fought for Britain in that conflict. This is the result of a rightward, nationalist drift in the British narrative that has been taken place for more than ten years now. UKIP are the obvious scapegoats, of course, but Labour and more liberal voices have also failed to creative a narrative that allows us to remember the war dead away from the dangerous energies of nationalism.

The result has been, as seems to be the case with so many things these days, to make the present feels as if we're living in a Chris Morris sketch from Brasseye. As Stephanie Boland pointed out in an excellent piece for the New Statesman, it's uncomfortable to say the least to see an RAF Tornado fighter bomber with its fuselage emblazoned with a poppy. Yet even this co-opting of what I used to see as a symbol of peace and commemoration appropriate to all sides in conflict by one military force pales compared to the invasion by the military-industrial corporate.

Only in a narrative on patriotism as twisted as ours is becoming can Jeremy Corbyn can be suspected as a dangerous enough figure to warrant a military coup for not supporting Trident while the manufacturers of the missile system Lockheed Martin are "proud" sponsors of the Royal British Legion's 2015 Poppy Rocks Ball. As well as developing missiles capable of blowing up half the world, Lockheed Martin are currently upgrading the British Army's Warrior armoured vehicles, and will supply the navy with F-35 fighters for the two new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft carriers. If there's a major war, British servicemen may well die in their products. Other items they manufacture for the British military include the Hellfire missile, also used by the RAF for the extra-judicial killing of Cardiff ISIS fighter Reyaad Khan. Another Royal British Legion Event, The Poppy Ball, is sponsored to the tune of at least £10,000 by handgun manufacturers Sphynx. For their ten grand, Sphynx are entitled to "10 tickets to the Ball, Logo on our sponsorship page on the Poppy Ball website and a thank you in the dinner programme" [capitals their own]. Here's hoping no veterans present have been on the receiving end of Sphynx's "forged precision from the heart of the Swiss Alps". BAE Systems, occasionally-corrupt, government-sponsored exporters of weaponry to grotty regimes across the world, also support Royal British Legion events. Former soldiers will of course not be unaware of the dangerous problems with BAE's SA80 assault rifle, a standard issue weapon for the British armed forces.

How did we allow this to happen? In part it stems from our glib treatment of history. Expressing an interest in war (my shelves of military history books often attract a raised eyebrow) is seen from the left and liberal wings as evidence of being suspect, even a warmonger. Far from it - it is only through studying the mistakes and horrors of the past that we are able to try to learn our way past their repetition. As Paul Mason writes, "The best antidote to ideology is detail". Instead, our past wars are celebrated as heroic victories, given a Keep Calm & Carry On tea towel polish, or used for cheap descriptions of muddy conditions at festivals. A wider narrative connecting historical notions of the 'just' war and patriotism with unquestioning veneration for the armed forces allows politicians to get away with risky deployments and conflicts of dubious necessity or purpose in the present day. Our comprehension of these late-20th and early-21st Century conflicts has been desensitised by nearly 25 years of gamification courtesy of the exciting hi-tech footage that was premiered during the first Gulf War in 1991. From our position of technological superiority and first world economic strength, war is still largely something that happens to other people, and frequently people 'othered' by a media narrative that conflates the psychotic macho death cult of ISIS with wider Islam.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health issues are rife among veterans of these wars, with one in five suffering from some form of psychiatric illness. Nine percent of London's homeless have served in the armed forces, with earlier research suggesting this rises to a quarter outside the Capital. Earlier this year a homeless former commando Billy Gage told the Manchester Evening News that he had been urinated and spat on on the streets of the city.

The Royal British Legion does important work supporting these men and women, our money is vital to allow them to continue, yet their corporate connections ought make us stop and wonder if we might better donate elsewhere. Surely forgoing the poppy to make a quiet donation to one of the many organisations that works with veterans or in zones of conflict is still a fitting, quiet tribute to those who died appalling, silent deaths. I'm no woolly pacifist, and have no wish to denigrate the sacrifices made by servicemen past and present. But what they, and we as a wider nation and community, do not need or deserve is a week of remembrance co-opted by political oneupmanship, jingoism and corporate interests.

Would this gradual perversion of the act of Remembrance from a private act of charity and thoughtful contemplation have happened before the great majority of women and men who served in the British armed forces to defeat fascism in the Second World War had passed away? I somehow feel they would not have stood for it. It was not what they fought for.

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