On TV it’s a must, the poppy on the lapel, in this first week of November. The month that culminates with an insolent state appropriating the remembrance of the soldiers of Britain and its empire who died in the two killing-field World European wars of this century.
Mandatory! All who appear on the screen! Football faces telling you what you’ve already seen for yourself; the head boys and head girls in the studio; weather forecasters; iconic and ironic arts critics; each and every parliamentarian; and the economics know-all from an investment bank. Maybe they have a stock of them in the studio. Maybe, just in case there’s the one face in twenty – a visiting American perhaps – who doesn’t know the score.
My family was hurt by these wars. Not eradicated like so many Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish families, but damaged, shrivelled. My father, a teenage soldier in the First World War after the deaths of his older brothers in France and Gallipoli, would not wear a poppy and –we had no TV at the time- would resolutely not have the radio on for the solemnities at the Cenotaph. Tony Blair and the others in their serious overcoats, poppy in the lapel.
To not forget is a laudable aim, my daughter is now studying the British poets of the First War for her GCSE, and those poets do convey some of the horror of those trenches and their disillusion with their own patriotic enthusiasm. But in our times this remembrance has been appropriated by one of the very nation-states which instigated and perpetuated this horror. Parasites on patriotism as JA Hobson described the finance capitalists of the time.
In the Gulf War of our times, memory of those European Wars prompted Western policymakers to form a strategy of minimum casualties on their own side a priority, but at a cost of World War I scale of casualties on the Iraqi side on the ‘highway of death’ at Mutla Ridge. Those who opposed the War and pointed out that it was the West which had armed Saddam Hussein when it suited them, were accused of being conspiracy theorists. The response of its supporters after some late-in-the-day highlighting of the brutality of the Iraqi dictator, was the fall-back position that the War, including the Mutla Ridge massacre had not been planned, but was the result of a series of cock-ups. Modernists to the core, that’s how the world is, by a series of cock-ups, good men are forced into a position that is not of their own making
In the case of the First World War, this is standard currency, and for once, most revisionist historians simply amplify this version. The European leaders and generals of the time did not understand what the first war of an industrialized Europe would involve, that they became trapped by the technology of a war in which millions died in the mud, that’s the story. Some of their sons died too, and it marks the birth of modernity perceived as a loss of innocence. Some of those sons did die, and it is their memoirs, disillusioned as they may have been which dominate modern memory and its cultural products which deal with that war.
What this version leaves out, and thereby enables the responsible states themselves to appropriate commemoration is two-fold. These horrors did not come out of nowhere is two-fold. In the previous few decades industrialized weaponry had been exercised and people killed in huge numbers in the colonies of Africa and Asia.
In European terms, it leaves out that even in the seemingly archaic First World War there were people who planned, people who assembled the various technologies of Gatling Guns, awesome artillery, Messerchmitts, Sopwith Camels, and tanks into a strategy, the consequences of which were visible years, and millions of deaths, before the War ended. They must, the European political elite, have seen how even without warplanes and bombers, that it would be protracted and grisly from the many available images from the American Civil War. They knew. And if, instead of taking the sentimental view of archaic politicians and generals trapped in the technologies of attrition we use the normal tools of cause and effect, we can see that the main outcome was the eradication of the intelligent, critical and technically proficient artisan class both in and outside of industrial production. The class which in those last years of ‘innocence’ were realising their political power and its ideas of social transformation.
The tragedy of that time, of my grandfather for one with the lost sons in a war he had supported, was that he and so many other ‘social democrats’ of the time embraced the rationale of the nation-state and its organisers. They had not faced up to the horrors of colonialism, and by then supporting the War, created a fait accompli whereby the Red Clydeside of technically skilled people was repressed, and the Labour Party was taken over by proto-monetarists. Though he was to oppose those proto monetarists, as a leader of the Boilermakers’ Union, by supporting the war, he had undermined the potential of societal transformation coming from its members; those who were left. At the same time, the Bolsheviks, having seized power on an anti-war ticket felt bold enough to continue with their own eradication of independently-minded artisans, whether writers or engineers, a class they detested.
As usual this year’s mourning celebration provided material, pages of it, for salaried commentators. Most shocking was a double-spread in the Observer newspaper. Will Hutton offered a banal apologia for the War. It had, he said, asserted modernity on the world, ended the age of deference, created Russian communism, and thus changed the world. In fact the age of deference was being challenged right across Europe before the war began. The war distorted that challenge and damaged most of that class of internationally-minded artisans who led it. It was a War in which the organizers of nation-states and the class they represented could say, See, this is how brutal we can be.
I am angry with my grandfather, that this representative of working class interests should betray those interests in social transformation. Now I am even angrier with the new ‘social democrats’ of this country who have refused to pardon those ‘deserters’ executed by the British state in that war. It shows how very selective is their much-trumpeted modernity, these guys for whom the worst that ever happened was some other squirt standing against them in student elections. Of course it may be that they would have been impossibly courageous in leaping out of a muddy trench to almost certain death. In the meanwhile they have no right to judge by default, those whom the authorities of the time deem to have been deficient in enthusiasm for leaping out of that trench.
But that is what they do, as a matter of elitist honour, not to reveal any of the dirty secrets of the nation-state that they are managing for the interim; not even 80 year old secrets, these modernisers. The only modern politician to show any decency has been French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin who has called for respect for those 30,000 French soldiers who refused to go on yet another suicide mission planned by generals ‘safely in the rear’, and has since been heavily attacked by the French political establishment.
In Britain there is only uniform uniformity whereby every arsehole under the sun wears a poppy for any occasion that is ‘public’. Such ostentatious conformism is vulgar and, in being so token, is truly disrespectful. Where is the respect in vulgar pomp and circumstance, Queen, Government, Opposition and selected personalities with de riguer poppies? Rather it celebrates the state’s ability to monopolise mourning.
In August 2006, some 9 years into the New Labour government, the then Minister of Defence Des Browne said he would put before parliament a pardon for 300 of the men executed in the War. This as Andrew McKinlay MP who had campaigned on this issue said was because the Ministry of Defence was going to lose a case in court brought by Gertie Harris, then in her 90s on behalf of her father, Harry Farr, wrongfully executed in 1916.
As in so many cases it is women –daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces and grandmothers who have fought for justice.