Red or White with your War?

(Previously published in the McTavish Opera blog 5 November 2013)
Why not have both?

It is that time of year again when Remembrance Poppies are on sale in the streets, and everyone is asked to buy and wear one, and to always remember those who gave their lives that we may live in peace and freedom – before we forget them for another year.

In the aftermath of World War I, men who had returned from the front faced unemployment and homelessness. A great many of course were invalided for life through either physical disability or mental trauma caused by what they had witnessed in the pure insanity of the trenches. One officer, Major John McCrae, had observed how the first thing to start growing on the battlefield at Ypres was poppies, which inspired him to write the poem “In Flanders Fields”.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(Major John Macrae, 1915)

Due to this poem one French war widow, Madame Anna Guérin, started selling red silk poppies on the streets of London. She and another widow were encountered by Field Marshall Earl Haig, who saw how the poppy could be used to support destitute and disabled veterans. He set up his first poppy factory at Richmond in 1922. Lady Haig opened her poppy factory in the Niddrie district of Edinburgh in 1926. This separate Scottish poppy fund was set up to solely benefit Scottish veterans. The Officer’s Association north and south of the border operated the two distinct funds, until the Royal British Legion took over the southern charity. The Officer’s Association continued to operate the Scottish fund until 1954, when a new standalone charity, the Earl Haig Fund Scotland took over the charity. This was renamed Poppyscotland in 2006.

I used to have something of a problem with wearing a poppy. My grandfather lived through both world wars. He was a man who considered Haig to be a butcher and a hypocrite, and would never wear a poppy which he claimed was “a glorification of war”. These were sentiments I broadly agreed with – and to an extent I still do to this day.

There are supporters of Irish republicanism who refuse to wear a poppy on political grounds due to British Army involvement in Northern Ireland. I have read and heard of people referring to the Royal British Legion as an organisation with “fascist supporters” and one commentator writing “the money from their collection tins goes to line the pockets of the Bloody Sunday murderers”. Firstly, whilst certain actions of the Royal British Legion may indeed be questionable, it does provide vital services for ex-servicemen; secondly, those commentators, who are in Scotland, must be unaware that the Royal British Legion have no place in the Poppyscotland operations; thirdly, I think it both disingenuous and not a little sad to generalise all armed services personnel with a few who were undoubtedly guilty of murder. But then, those who write these things have the freedom to do so – a freedom bought dear by the lives of others.

It is also not lost on me that those who decry the poppy because of illegal actions carried out by the military in Northern Ireland also tend to be the same who hero-worship republican paramilitaries who carried out campaigns against “soft targets”; euphemistic speech for civilians. If the shooting dead of civilians by the army in Northern Ireland was an atrocity, so it must equally be an atrocity to plant bombs in pubs and shopping centres which are deliberately intended to kill civilians. No republicans, you can’t have it both ways.

Then there are those who have no respect for the military and claim that all those in uniforms are no more than hired killers. These are the ones who call the military murderers and “baby killers”. Such people, pretending to be pacifists, sicken me. Yes, children and other civilians get killed in armed conflict. But what then of the huge humanitarian efforts that the military all too often carry out? How many lives have airdrops of food into areas ravaged with famine actually saved? How many items has a mere military presence by UN peacekeeping forces been enough to prevent further killings of civilians? These things would never have been possible without help from the military, and the keyboard warriors decrying the armed forces would do well to remember that. And it is not always overseas.

There are also those in Scotland who decry the Scottish regiments on the basis that most of them were formed in the wake of the Jacobite rebellions to put down insurrection in the Scottish Highlands. That is a fact, without a doubt. However, that was then and this is now. I frankly don’t see any armed insurrection in the Highlands, nor would I wish to. As to the Scottish Regiments, most are now long gone and the remainder have all been grouped into the Royal Regiment of Scotland. And why then are Scots joining up? Many indeed because they seek a life in the military and the discipline and prospects it offers, and then there are some poor buggers who go for it as they cannot get a job elsewhere. Events of 200 plus years ago certainly do not factor in the minds of those in Scotland joining the army today. Yet that did not stop one foolish woman I once knew banging on about those events in relation to today’s military. She did so from her home in Kirriemuir, and I replied that I did not here her complaining when the Royal Regiment of Scotland sandbagged a local river in her area and evacuated elderly residents whose homes had become flooded.

I am well versed in Scots history myself, I am a diehard Scots nationalist and it is true I feel no love for the British state, and seek to remove my country from it. Which may lead many to ask why I wear a poppy in the first place. My father was a member of the Young Communist League during the Second World War. Had the Nazis won, if my father was lucky he would have got a bullet though the brain. Had he been unlucky, he would have been shipped off to one of Hitler’s death camps. Either way I not only would never have been born, I would never even have been conceived in the first place. I therefore feel that I owe everyone who did their bit and those who gave their lives in WWII a debt that can never be repaid, a debt which includes my very life itself. And given the strong leftist feeling in the UK at the time, which gave a Labour government with a socialist agenda a landslide victory in 1945, I highly suspect I am not alone in owing that debt. I doubt many alive today would ever had been conceived had the Nazis been successful.

I certainly see no contradiction to wearing a poppy and being a Scots nationalist. And if there are any who think there is, it may interest to them to know that the 2013 Poppyscotland appeal was launched by Craig and Charlie Reid; The Proclaimers, both of whom are not only extremely outspoken supporters of Scots independence, but equally vocal opponents of the British establishment and the monarchy.

I therefore have no problem with wearing a poppy to show my respect; for I truly do have respect. What I object to is the coercion, bullying, imperialism, jingoism, pomp and ceremony and the utter hypocrisy surrounding the poppy and Remembrance Day in general.

There is definitely a stigma attached to wearing the poppy. It is as if you don’t wear one you are immediately classed as a traitor somehow. It has become the “done thing” to wear a poppy, and woe betide anyone who refuses to buy or wear one. I well recall buying one once and my mother upon seeing it saying “Well at least one member of the family has got one.” as if it were seeking public approval. As I do not court public approval, nor have I ever done so, I told my mother straight that I do not wear a poppy because of worry about what the neighbours might say. To hell with the neighbours. If they likewise wear the poppy because it is the done thing, then they too have lost sight of the meaning behind it. Alternatively one gets the argument that people gave their lives to win freedom for us. Indeed they did, including the freedom whether or not to buy and wear a poppy. When people are coerced and downright bullied into wearing a poppy then that sacrifice becomes meaningless and vain.

One thing which particularly angers me about the poppy and Remembrance Day is politicians abusing both, merely to improve their own public image. It disgusts me that there are politicians who try to outdo others by buying the biggest poppy possible, to show how much they ‘care’. Bullshit. It is to do with their public persona, and they know that all to well. I have seen politicians with absurdly large poppies covering almost their entire chest. Given a choice between someone like that and another politician wearing the normal little poppy, I know whom I am going to trust more.

The particularly galls me when it is politicians in government wearing huge poppies, and making sanctimonious speeches about the sacrifice of the fallen and how we must remember them. Yet these same politicians rely upon organisations such as the Royal British Legion, Poppyscotland, and veterans homes to do the job they should be doing; ensuring the welfare of serving and former military personnel and their families. In 1918 David Lloyd George’s government promised “homes fit for heroes” and singularly failed to deliver upon that, just as no UK government, of any political colour, has ever delivered upon that since.

Yet every October the same politicians come out with their soundbites about “sacrifice” and “remembering”, while at the same time they only remember serving personnel by carrying out defence cutbacks which leave forces vulnerable without the proper resources and even laying them off, sometimes while they are overseas on active service. Veterans meanwhile get their thanks and remembrance for their services by having their benefits continually cut. Due to the recent imposition of the Under Occupancy Charge (aka Bedroom Tax) for social housing, there are now many veterans in arrears and others who have even been served with eviction notices. I am also reminded of one veteran in the north of England who lost a leg in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He was given a prosthetic leg and a specially adapted car to help him get around. He was told that he would never walk any real distance again, but being a career soldier and a man of sheer grit and determination, he managed to teach himself to walk up to 500 metres. His thanks for that was to have his car taken away from him.

The UK currently has one of the most right-wing Conservative governments we have ever experienced. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has talked of the upcoming 100 year anniversaries of the First World War with “celebrations”. We should never ‘celebrate’ any war, let alone one which was four years of insane butchery, which achieved nothing but which ended with 37 million dead, countless millions invalided, and which sent many insane with the carnage they witnessed. At the same time this government is carrying out some of the most swingeing defence cutbacks ever, which will see a great many military personnel, and those in support jobs, made unemployed, as well as embarking on some of the most stringent public spending cuts which will take benefits away from a great many veterans and their families.

So it is that politicians sicken me wearing poppies, all too often the largest possible, talking about sacrifice, respect and remembering once a year, when they actively do not recognise the sacrifice military personnel gave for their country (more than the politicians ever did), they disrespect veterans and only remember them when it comes to robbing them of every penny they possibly can.

At the same time as wearing the Poppyscotland poppy, I wear a white poppy alongside it. The Peace Pledge Union white poppy first appeared on Armistice Day (Remembrance Day after World War II) 1933, when they were created by the Co-operative Women’s Guild, not as any insult to the fallen, but rather as a statement against all war. The Guild had in fact previously approached the Haig Fund asking them to put “No more war.” at the centre of their poppies which they refused to do, so the white poppy was created to fill that gap.

There are those who claim that the white poppy is a political statement. In a way it is, but that is directed at governments rather than at the forces, whether they be current or former serving personnel. Instead, it stands as a statement to the following;

“For all those who have died in war. For all who have died because resources which could have saved them were spent on war instead. For all who shall continue to die until we learn to live together in peace.”

I feel this is an important point here. True pacifists like myself are not anti-military, and neither is the white poppy. Those of us who believe in ending war no more wish to see military personnel being killed than we do civilians. Across western Europe there is barely a town or village which does not have a war memorial as a testament to the fact that there has been too much killing already. I have absolutely no wish to see soldiers, sailors and air personnel from opposing countries killing and being killed by others they have never met because governments have let their arguments get out of control. Far from being a statement against the military, therefore, the white poppy actively states that the wearer respects and supports the military, whom they have no wish to see die.

And therein lies the rub with the whole argument about war; if we wish to end it, we shall never do so by listening to uncaring governments making glib soundbites about never remembering the fallen, then forgetting veterans for another year. When we have jingoistic, aggressive governments trying to show off their balls on the world stage, they cannot solve the problem of armed conflict for the simple reason they ARE the problem. They are the ones who start the wars, it is the poor buggers in uniform who go and do their fighting for them.

This was not lost on many of those who served in two world wars – and afterwards. The war poets of World War I were certainly under no illusion about the “glory” of war which first Henry Asquith then David Lloyd George spoke. Certainly Wilfred Owen was not when he wrote Dulce Et Decorum Est;

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-
An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea,
I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-

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.

(Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; it is a sweet and beautiful thing to die for one’s country)

Even a man whom those on the political right love for his patriotic verse, Rudyard Kipling, was far from fooled when he wrote “If someone asks you why we died, say because our fathers lied.” But then neither was Harry Patch (1898-2009), the last veteran of World War I, who described war as “legalised mass murder, nothing more”, and who famously stated,

“Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves.”

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