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Poppies help our rulers forget

by Simon Basketter

Every year it is seemingly compulsory for every politician and even anyone who appears on television to wear a poppy. It is presented as a mark of respect for those who have died in war.

Each year the period for wearing a poppy gets a little longer. This year BBC presenters and Tory MPs managed to wear poppies even before the British Legion had launched their annual appeal.

Then there was the slightly obscene process of ever larger and garish poppies worn by celebrities to prove they are extra mournful of the dead.

The whole process has escalated in recent years for a reason. There has been a concerted effort to use the remembrance weekend to bolster flagging support for war in Afghanistan.

The rather sordid process began under the last Labour government with homecoming parades and repatriation public funerals, the creation of Armed Forces Day and wearing of poppies to pull together a false national consensus.

A minor absurdity was reached when David Cameron, avoiding the student protests in London, went to China to flog them stuff and wore his poppy with pride.

Shame it’s 150 years on from the Opium Wars when Britain forced China to buy opium—made from poppies—with gunboat diplomacy. That’s just the sort of war we are not meant to remember.

But the poppy has been a consistent symbol of the hypocrisy of our leaders who take us to war.

The First World War, the end of which on 11 November 1918 is marked every year on Remembrance Sunday, produced an unprecedented wave of created “remembrance”.

Dedicated

Remembrance Day was dedicated by King George V in 1919. In 1921 the Earl Haig Fund, a charity for ex-servicemen, was launched and the sale of poppies marked the build-up to Remembrance Day.

It is named after Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander responsible for the mass slaughter at the battles of the Somme and the Passchendaele.

Why did the British ruling class create this official industry of remembrance?

The First World War resulted in a tidal wave of revolt against global rulers. Poppies, cemeteries, and remembrance rituals were part of the official response to mass anti-war bitterness.

Popular revulsion against the carnage fused with class anger against exploitation and privation at home. A wave of revolt swept across Europe. In Russia, revolt turned into revolution and an end to war.

The armistice of 1918 was itself a product of revolution—Germany’s rulers surrendered for fear their army would mutiny and the state collapse.

Because of this political upsurge, the legacy of the war was bitterly contested. Official remembrance rituals are one of the results.

Official remembrance looks two ways. It mourns the dead and regrets their loss. But at the same time it glorifies their “necessary sacrifice”. The war was terrible, the argument goes, but the price was worth paying.

The poppy is tainted by the hypocrisy of warmongers and imperialists. Many who wear it buy into the idea that it is to mourn those who died. Though even then it is worth remembering that it commemorates only one side in any war—“ours”.

Last week saw poppies painted on the side of a mosque by members of the English Defence League. This was not a symbol of mourning but of Islamophobia and racism.

That a tiny number of publicity-hungry Islamists burnt a poppy is pointless and irrelevant.

What is relevant is that the destruction of whole countries by imperialism that continues to this day is justified and glorified in the disguise of remembering.

Lest we forget, there is a struggle to end war by challenging the rulers and the system that cause it.

That won’t come from burning a poppy but it will come from the same sort of mass movement that ended the First World War.


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Tue 16 Nov 2010, 18:08 GMT
Issue No. 2228
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