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By Jason Michael

WE WEAR THE POPPY, or so we are told, to remember those who fell in the trenches of France and Flanders during the global imperial war of 1914-18, to pay tribute to those who paid the greatest sacrifice for their king and their country. About fifteen years ago I decided to stop wearing a poppy. I came to the conclusion that this cheap and meaningless little flower was a symbol of things far uglier and more horrible than it was a token of remembrance. But before getting into this, a question: What is it we think we are remembering when we revisit the events of that miserable slaughter? Not a single one of us were there, not one of us followed the orders of imbeciles over the top and into no-man’s-land after a soccer ball into a killing zone of German machine gun fire. Not a single one of us faced the fear of summary execution for ‘cowardice,’ desertion, or failure to obey idiotic orders.

When we buy a poppy, we are not remembering anything. We were not there. We have nothing to remember. My earliest memories of war were of the Falklands War, where Margaret Thatcher ordered the sinking of a ship in full retreat – a war crime. That was over sixty years after the armistice that ended the senseless butchery in Flanders fields. But I wasn’t there. I was busy playing with my Tonka truck. Then there was a war for oil in Iraq, and then another with a sexed-up dossier – another illegal war with attendant war crimes. In fact, I’m not alone in not wanting to remember the wars Britain has fought in my lifetime, they were all illegal and all shameful. Sometimes I think maybe the remembrance of a war we can’t remember is about forgetting the wars we can.

Still, behind all the crap and corruption of a charity coughing up the cash for the terrible damage the government has done to veterans and their families – not to mention the lives of millions of civilians where they earned their hero status – there is a folk memory of that war that has come down to us, and it’s nothing like the fake memory we’re now being sold. Our grandparents remember the stories of their parents and grandparents, memories that have scant resemblance to the heroic images conjured up by the modern poppy industry. We can forget Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme. The real war began in the stinking, diseased, and overcrowded tenements where that generation of warriors was bred in industrial slums that could have given the ghettos of Warsaw, Lvov, and Krakow a run for their money. The vast majority of these ‘heroes’ didn’t go off to war to be heroes, to fight for the British Empire – they were shamed into going and then conscripted. The men we remember were of value at home as nothing more than a labour force, and abroad as cannon fodder.

In 1914 they began leaving the slums, taking the King’s shilling, to escape the dirt and the disease, to send some worthless pennies home to feed the wives and children they had left behind in buildings swarming with humanity and rotting with piss, shit, and vomit. You may think I’m being crass, but if we could revisit those dwellings, these rude words would be the least of our worries. The government that sent them to war had caged them like animals in these hell holes to work and to die for the good of the empire and the ruling class. For the empire and the wealth and comfort of the ruling class they would die in the mud, surrounded by the blood and broken bodies of their brothers, their neighbours, and their pals. Is this what we remember?

No, this is far from what we remember. We remember what we’re told to remember; the weird fiction of the glorious fallen soldier – now completely unknown. He’s standing there in silhouette, head bowed, hands on his rifle, a brand image like Coca Cola or Nike Air to sell us poppies to meet the costs the government refuses to cover. Whether we like it or not, this is what the remembering is all about. It is a million miles from the memory of those who were there, who wrote in their despair at the mess and the creation of false memory:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in… you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

That’s the false memory, and – if this were my only misgiving – I might still waste a few pence on a poppy once a year. But there are other problems with the poppy and the false memories we are sold. Poppy fascism and the cry of ‘Where’s your poppy?!’ take us to a darker place, where the poppy and the sad looking soldier brand – the new Teutonic Knight – are coded references to xenophobia and racism. In Ireland, the poppy is used year-round by a segment of a community in the occupied six counties to mark its walls like a dog would mark a tree – This is Ulster: A Protestant land for a Protestant people. It forgets more than it has ever remembered; that Irish Catholics and Protestants from every part of the island of Ireland fought side by side in the hell that was Britain’s killing fields in France and Flanders. In Britain this terrible little flower has become all about the forgetting. It remembers the struggle against Nazism and totalitarianism in Europe, yet has become the banner under which Britain’s neo-Nazis rally. It has become a token of the campaign against British Muslims and everyone else deemed ethnically and racially impure by the far-right.

In 1914 boys and men were enslaved in a death machine with the promise that this would be the war to end all wars. Was it hell! This was only the beginning, the prelude to every industrialised war of the modern age, and the birth of mechanised murder and genocide. Every single horror of the twentieth century was unthinkable until it was tested first in the trenches – the gas, the graves, the despicable inhumanity. I catch myself wondering, as someone who holds an academic fellowship in the history of that evil war, how many of those poor souls would have put a bullet through their own heads had they known where their war to end all wars would lead. It matters little now. It mattered little even at the time. They and their efforts were forgotten the moment they returned home; their struggle to better their lives and those of their families were met with truncheons – lest we forget.

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No-one should feel forced to wear a poppy


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2 thoughts on “Cheap and Meaningless

  1. Jason; your writings are reaching new heights this week.
    Every piece you have written this week has been powerful and thought provoking and striking right at the British State’s rotten heart of darkness.
    It’s my fervent wish to see the death of this awful construct which has cast such a malign shadow across the earth and to see it very soon.
    I still wear two poppies; a White for all those human beings who have been slaughtered for the gratification of the capitalists and a purple for the hapless animals Co-opted into the death games of the planet’s remorseless apex predator.

    Like

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