So it’s mid-November now and the poppy season is past. Just about. And what a sea, an ocean of them we’ve had this year. More, it seems, than ever before. A sign perhaps of our increasing gratitude and enduring sympathy for those who gave up their lives for us, their limbs, and for many their psychological stability? Politicians, TV newsreaders, chat-show hosts, weather-man, weather-woman and just about every Tom, Dick and Harriet have proudly borne poppies about their persons. The English football team sported poppies on black armbands when recently they played Spain. And for that game, the pitch at the new Wembley Stadium was entirely encircled with brilliant red graphics of poppies of which you were shown a glimpse in odd gaps between the rolling advertising slogans. Before the game, military men, upright and brittle were brought out, attired in braid and dripping with medals, to shake hands with the teams. And then there was the annual spectacle of the Queen laying a wreath of poppies on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, watched the while by luminaries such as Tony Blair, co-architect of what is now generally recognized as the most disastrous, mendacious and ill thought-through foreign intervention of modern times.
Is it me, or is there just a whiff of hypocrisy here? For if we were really concerned to remember – an odd word in the circumstances – those who gave so much, would we not also be forced to remember those in the then enemy armies? They too were young men, often hardly into adulthood, loved by their families, inveigled into a conflict in whose inception they had played no part. They too lost their lives, had their limbs torn from them – courtesy of our ordnance. Their children were by us un-fathered, just as were so many of ours by them. Why then do we remember only those who came from this piece of land called – at least for the time being, for it has not always been so and won’t always be into the future – ‘England’, along with its one-time colonial offshoots? We speak only of ‘the British and Commonwealth war dead.’ And so, it seems to me, we turn something which should be a profoundly sobering reminder of the horrors and pointlessness of war into a piece of national self-admiration.
I referred in a recent post to the Richard Attenborough film, ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’. It paints a poignant and agonising picture of the bitterly un-prepossessing reality of war and its genesis. And I suspect the picture holds true in some degree for all wars down the ages. Leaders, craving wider powers and failing (not even desiring?) to resolve their differences with each other, resort ultimately to armed conflict – armed conflict in which they themselves will take no part. Instead, under the banner of such worthy sentiments as ‘fighting for your country’, ‘laying down your life so that others may live’ etc., they send ordinary men and women into battle to do the nasty work of killing or being killed while they themselves sit in fortified bunkers directing matters from a great distance. At least the medieval kings, brutal though they and their times were, took themselves into the battle they themselves had initiated.
I have nothing against the Flanders poppies, or anything else for that matter which may act as a symbol to remind us a) of our own potential for inhumanity to each other and b) of those who were so sacrificed in two world wars and subsequent conflicts. But if those men and women died for any good reason at all, then surely it was not simply so that once a year we that are left can all don poppies and ‘remember’.
If I were a cultural dictator (!) of the UK I would have the base of the Cenotaph in Whitehall surrounded with the flags of every nation that took part in those conflicts. And above them would be inscribed Wilfred Owen’s words –
“My friend, 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.”
But that’s a long, long way ahead. And I doubt the Queen would, in any case, wish to be seen laying wreaths at the base of such a memorial. What a blow however for understanding if she did.