Poppy and me
November 9th 2015
This is probably going to be a slightly strange post – and it’s not really anything to do with writing, so you’ll have to bear with me. I’ll put a proper update up tomorrow.
Most folk know that the UK’s annual Day of Remembrance falls on November 11th and Remembrance Sunday on the nearest Sunday to the 11th. There are often open-air memorial services held around our many war memorials and on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there is a widely-observed silence to remember our war dead.
It’s something that everyone brought up in this country tends to absorb. There are marches with veterans from the armed forces, serving soldiers, other uniformed organisations including the Scouts and Guides, flags, readings, wreath-laying, hymns, the National Anthem, and a poignant rendition of the Last Post. Done properly, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by some part of it.
The Royal British Legion are the custodians of Remembrance Day and the Poppy Appeal that goes with it. Putting aside the possibly controversial idea that a government should, as part of any military covenant, always look after disabled and elderly veterans rather than have them rely on a charity – people are charitable, and want to give to good causes, and that’s right and proper – the RBL have always, to my knowledge, been for taking care of former serving soldiers and their families.
When I was younger, I could point to those in my own family who’d gone to war. They all came back, which is perhaps unusual: amongst them Perce, who was a tankie and help liberate a concentration camp in the dying days of the war, Walt, a marine, and Jack, on the Arctic convoys. My own dad was conscripted in the early fifties and drove around occupied Germany in a Bren gun carrier for a couple of years. The Second World War was an unambiguously good-against-evil fight, and – I want to be absolutely clear about this – had the Allies lost and Britain invaded, my dad and his family would have been exterminated, and I wouldn’t be here, and neither would my beloved children.
I even married into what you’d call a service family, though it was decided very early on that I wouldn’t make a good army wife.
I’m no longer young. I’ve most probably passed the half-way point. Things are beginning to drop off. I’m growing old as they who are left grow old. I’ve always worn a poppy. And I’m increasingly uncomfortable with how and what we’re remembering.
So what happened to the War to End All Wars? The UK has been involved in at least sixteen different conflicts in my lifetime, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. We can make individual arguments about the rightness or wrongness of each intervention, but they’re a bit of a mixed bag, and many of them simply rearguard actions in the break-up of Empire.
We don’t tend to remember them. We don’t remember the debacle of the Suez Crisis, the war crimes carried out against the civilian population of Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, the starving faces from the Biafran War. We sometimes remember The Troubles, but only in part. And that’s before we get on to the much more recent and problematic Gulf Wars, the fourth (fourth, mind) Anglo-Afghan War, and the Libyan Civil War.
We don’t tend to remember the Commonwealth forces much either. The Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus who fought along side their Christian colleagues for their Christian emperors. Or the Jews living in this and other countries. We don’t tend to remember the Africans and Asians and Arabs.
But everyone remembers their own. And perhaps, like me when I stand and remember, they recall the sacrifices their families and communities made, the lives lost and irrevocably altered, the destruction wrought, the sons and daughters and fathers and mothers who were swept up in the storm and only sometimes came back. My own son is now exactly of an age where, if we lived in many different parts of the world, he’d be expected to pick up a gun and go and fight the enemy, whoever they happened to be that day. I think about that a lot.
And I hope that he’ll be spared that. I hope that other father’s sons are spared that. I hope for a world where someone’s first instinct is to sit down and talk to their enemy, not their last resort. I hope – naïvely, wildly – that there’ll be peace, and not peace at any price, but a difficult, just peace which is dirty and ragged and itches, but one which is seen as so much better than war.
And that’s not what I’m seeing. I’m sorry. I wish I could see that. But when my children’s school edges its way towards a joyous celebration of the armed forces rather than holding than a sombre remembrance of the dead, where their refugee classmates are expected to remember the sacrifice made by British soldiers when all they recall are British bombs falling from British planes, when democratically-elected political leaders are picked apart for apparent failings in their shows of loyalty, when the Royal British Legion is proud to be sponsored by the Hitler-apologist Daily Mail and by major arms manufacturers… I’m sorry. I won’t deify every soldier as a hero. I won’t believe every war just. I won’t send my son to fight. I won’t be co-opted into this blinkered, one-sided view of history. And I won’t be wearing a poppy this year.