Come you masters of war… I just want you to know I can see through your masks

white poppy

AS a lifelong pacifist I have regularly argued on this blog against our ongoing glorification of war and imperial aggression.
Last November I published a piece entitled: I Saw That His Face Looked Just Like Mine, which chided the charade of Remembrance Sunday and the wearing of red poppies.
For the millions of wearers of these poppies they believe it is a good and noble cause to remember “those who died to protect our freedom”.
I too mourn the loss of these soldiers’ lives, but I also mourn the loss of the lives of soldiers from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Iraq, Argentina, North and South Korea, Afghanistan, Russia and many other countries.
And I mourn the 142 million innocent men, women and children killed in these wars.
I stand by the line of Wilfred Owen’s famous World War 1 poem: To children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
To translate from the Latin: the old lie: It is sweet and right to die for your country.
Why should dying for one’s country be a sweet, right, noble and heroic thing to do?
Because some warriors once drew lines in the earth determining where a country begins and ends?
Or because some politician or monarch has ordered you to fight?
Or because your skin is a different colour to someone else’s… or you speak a different language?
I published the words to Bob Dylan’s song John Brown, which in a simple narrative explodes the glory and hypocrisy of war.
I also published a short poem called Red or White, which explains why each November I wear a white poppy.
The white poppy is an ongoing challenge to the continuing drive to war.
And lest we forget, there is a message of support for Remembrance Sunday from the world’s second largest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, conveniently sited in the underground station below Portcullis House where Members of Parliament have their offices and round the corner from the Cenotaph.
You see, making war is a big and highly profitable business; little wonder then that financiers, manufacturers, trade unions and of course the military and now the growing band of support charities are loath to call for peace and disarmament instead demanding more body armour, tougher boots and more helicopters to rescue the wounded.
The irony lies heavily, because 100 years ago the distinguished economist JA Hobson, neither socialist nor pacifist, saw World War 1 as rational only for the capitalist ruling classes who stood to benefit from the “ever-worsening burden of armaments”.
Many critics of the war also understood that it was being waged for stakes outside Europe in great tracts of colonised land in Asia and Africa.
While it is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifices made by soldiers from these regions, it is dishonest to assimilate them into the popular narrative of “everybody’s war for freedom”.
These were colonised subjects whose war this was certainly not, and in whose countries Britain was doing anything but defending freedom – its own occupying troops as unwelcome as German ones in Belgium.
So in January this year I had another pop at the glorification of war in a piece ironically entitled Dulce et Decorum Est.
My article came after Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove defended the 100th anniversary ‘celebrations’ of the start of World War 1, publicly demeaned respected historians, then rewrote history himself by stating how the four years of carnage was indeed a ‘Great War’.
But why exactly, Mr Gove, are we using £50 million of public money to commemorate a catastrophe from which, in 2014, there are no survivors?
And if we honour the fallen Allied soldiers of the 1914-18 conflict, will we do the same for the German soldiers or indeed the dead of the Crimean War, Waterloo, the Boer War, the battles of Bannockburn and Culloden or the dead from the English Civil War, Agincourt, Crecy or even the Battle of Hastings?
Where does logic and reality stop and politics and propaganda begin?
And does Mr Gove really know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme?
The reasons given for this year’s World War 1 commemoration is that yet again we must remember our dead. “They died for us and our freedom. The cost of sacrifice. Remember Passchendaele. Never forget.”
As a child I remember sitting on my Great Uncle Jack’s knee as he told me tales of the Somme and the mud, horror and death. He showed me the 11 inch scar on his back where a German sniper had almost taken his life as he crawled back to his trench from no man’s land. And he also told me of his older brother Bernet who died from typhus fever in the trenches at the Somme, like many thousands of his compatriots.
There was no glory, no heroism, just the mechanised slaughter of millions of young working class men.
As Wilfred Owen wrote: ‘the poetry is in the pity’.
In the four years of World War 1, Britain endured 658,700 fatalities, 2,032,150 wounded and 359,150 men missing in action. This adds up to total of over three million casualties from one side alone.
Add to this the four million fatalities from the German side and other civilian deaths, the total death toll was in excess of 16 million.
No glory, just death and suffering.
As Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1916, said: “If the people really knew the truth the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”
Today the British Government stands out in Europe for its flag-waving jingoism in relation to the centenary. Most Europeans are more sophisticated.
The superb ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ on the battlefield of Ypres/Passchendaele in Belgium presents the war as a collective human tragedy which we need to understand. A ‘Path of Peace’ runs along the old trench-lines of the Isonzo Front in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. The twinned towns of Newark in Britain and Emmendingen in Germany plan to recreate the 1914 Christmas Truce football match.
And there is much more: places, exhibits, and events which seek to present the war – causes, course, and consequences – as it really was, and to use the commemoration to foster internationalism and peace.
Public money should be used in ways that help us remember the victims, lament the waste, and learn the lessons.
Poetry is again central to how many people regard World War 1.
The No Glory in War movement has arranged a special night of poetry to commemorate Conscientious Objectors’ Day on 15 May.
They have lined up a fine array of speakers, including AL Kennedy, Blake Morrison, Michael Rosen, George Szirtes and Samuel West.
They’ll read from both their own work and that of the war poets and talk a bit about the No Glory campaign.
Given the recent attacks on the war poets by Mr Gove and the Tory Government-backed revisionist historians, it’s important to reclaim their centrality to our memory of that war.
The event is called Cold Stars Lighting – taken from Wilfred Owen’s poem (I Saw His Round Mouth’s Crimson)
So if you’re near London, why not go along. You can book tickets here: http://www.wegottickets.com/event/262403#.UwfWaYXiS8c
Check out this website too: http://www.ppu.org.uk/remembrance/index.html

Author: seagullnic

Writer, editor, lecturer and part-time musician. Passions in life: my family, Bob Dylan, music of many genres, Brighton and Hove Albion FC, cooking plus good food and wine.

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