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

Poppycock – or why remembrance rituals make me see red

Posting this brilliant piece by esteemed writer and journalist Robert Fisk, published in today’s The Independent.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/poppycock–or-why-remembrance-rituals-make-me-see-red-8927751.html

The poppy helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war

On the briefest of visits to London, I was appalled to notice that our television presenters and politicians and dignitaries have almost all resorted to stereotype by wearing those bloody poppies again – even though I suspect most of them would not know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme. How come this obscene fashion appendage – inspired by a pro-war poem, for God’s sake, which demands yet further human sacrifice – still adorns the jackets and blouses of the Great and the Good? Even Tony Blair dares to wear a poppy – he who lied us into a war, which killed more people than the Battle of Mons.

I know all the reasons they give us. We must remember our dead. “They” died for us and our freedom. The cost of sacrifice. Remember Passchendaele. Never forget. At school I used to wear a poppy – without the leaf which now prettifies this wretched flower – and so did my Dad who, as I often recall, was a soldier of that Great War, in the trenches of the Third Battle of the Somme, 1918, and at Cambrai. But then, as 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk grew older and became sick, he read the biographies of that most meretricious of officers, Earl Haig – butcher Haig of the Somme, whose wife gave her name to the original poppies – and came to regard the wearing of these sickly and fake petals as hypocrisy. He stopped wearing the poppy for 11 November, and so did I.

At Ypres four years ago, I was honoured to give the Armistice Day lecture just before 11 November; but I did not wear a poppy and politely declined to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate – that “sepulchre of crime” as Sassoon called it – and I discovered, as the clergy purred away beneath the names of the 54,896 Great War soldiers with no known grave, a headstone atop the city’s old medieval wall. Nothing could equal the words which his family had courageously inscribed above the final resting place of 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young, who died on 16 August, 1917: “Sacrifice to the fallacy that war can end.”

So is there not some better way to remember this monstrous crime against humanity? The pity of war, as Wilfred Owen described it, must, for individuals, have a finite end, a point when time – looking backwards – just runs out. British men and women – and children – who visit the Somme battlefields and their vast cemeteries, still cry, and I can understand why. Here lies indeed the flower of youth cut short, only just over a generation distant. But we do not cry when we visit Waterloo or Agincourt. At Flanders Fields, the tears still flow. But not at Flodden Field. Who even weeps for the dead of the Boer War? No poppies for them. Only when you move into religious ecstasy can the long dead touch our souls. Watch the Christians walking the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem, or the Iraqi Shia remembering in the oven-like heat of Najaf and Kerballa the martyrdom of Imams Ali and Hussain. The tears splash down their clothes.

Perhaps in war, it’s the names that count. Dead soldiers had no gravestones before the Great War, unless they were generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment in Saint Paul’s or Les Invalides. The soldiery were simply dumped into mass graves. At Waterloo, the remains of the dead were shipped off to England to be used as manure on the fields of Lincolnshire – sometimes tilled, no doubt, by their unsuspecting farmer sons. So much for our remembrance of the “thin red line”. No posthumous glory for them.

Yet glory, I fear, does lie somewhere in our souls when we decide to bless our clothes with this preposterous poppy, this little paper and plastic “blood-drop” on our breasts, fake flowers that supposedly spring from the blood-red soil of the Flanders dead. It is perhaps easier to believe that the names will “live for evermore” – as it says on the walls of cemeteries of both Great Wars of the 20th century – even though hundreds of thousands of First World War Brits and French and Germans and Austrians and Irishmen in British uniform and Hungarians and Indians and Russians and Americans and Turks and, yes, even Portuguese (at Ypres) have no graves at all. But the poppy also helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war.

Wyndam Lewis, the master of Vorticist art who became a soldier at Ypres, wrote of the Great War that it “went on far too long… It was too vast for its meaning, like a giant with the brain of a midge. Its epic proportions were grotesquely out of scale, seeing what it was fought to settle. It was far too indecisive. It settled nothing, as it meant nothing. Indeed, it was impossible to escape the feeling that it was not meant to settle anything – that could have any meaning, or be of any advantage, to the general run of men.”

Tolstoy caught the other side of this “non-meaning” of war in his critique of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. An “event took place”, he wrote in War and Peace, “opposed to human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, incendiarisms and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.”

It was Lewis’s idea – that war was ultimately devoid of meaning – which my father was, I think, trying to capture when he described the 1914-18 conflict to me in his hospital room as “just one great waste”. He had survived that war and outlived another and the end of the British Empire, which I suspect we have not ceased mourning – could that be really what the poppies are all about? – and even lived long enough to watch the first Gulf War on television. He often quoted what he believed to be the last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, shot in Brussels by the Germans for rescuing Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, words which are inscribed on her monument beside the National Gallery: “Patriotism is not enough.” But in full, her very last words – spoken to a British chaplain before she was executed – were these: “But this I would say, standing in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Read her words; and cast poppies aside.

For they are better, surely, than that terrible, almost orgiastic poem by the Toronto doctor John McCrae who died in 1915, and whose words inspired the armies of poppy-wearers. “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…” McCrae begins – but then his dead soldiers exhort the living to “Take up our quarrel with the foe…/ If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders Fields.” The poppies were there to remind us of our duty to kill more human beings.

And what did I see on television a few hours before writing these words? Why, the mayor of Toronto – McCrea’s own city – admitting to the smoking of crack cocaine. “I sincerely, sincerely, sincerely apologise,” he burbled to us all. And what did I see in his jacket button hole? A bloody poppy! How they must have cried at Passchendaele…