WeeklyWorker

14.11.2013
Head of state, head of church ... very political

Celebration of imperialist crimes

Eddie Ford wants us to defy the poppy police

Unfortunately, it is that time of year again when the establishment and its media hypocritically pretend to be horrified by war. Yes, we had the ritual of Remembrance Sunday with its solemn wreath-laying ceremony and hushed reverence at the Cenotaph. The millions squalidly butchered - sorry, who ‘sacrificed their lives for their country’ - in killing fields across the globe are transformed into pawns of an ongoing imperial game.

We are now approaching, of course, the centenary of the outbreak of World War I - obscenely and lyingly described as the ‘war to end all wars’ when it was just the prelude to yet more slaughter and another world war, only on a vaster scale. The original two-minute silence in November 1919, as we have been constantly reminded by a mawkish media, was a gesture of mourning for those killed in the trenches - their lives snuffed out in order to preserve the British empire. There are now no living veterans of World War I, however, the last one dying in February 2012 - and the numbers of surviving World War II veterans obviously shrink each year. You might think, therefore, that the remembrance ceremonies would be dwindling.

But nothing of the sort - quite the opposite, if anything. Not that it is hard to see why. The two-minute silence and all the rest is used to whitewash, at least partially, the past crimes of imperialism and - more importantly still - to legitimise current British military operations. They shall never be forgotten so that we can fight war again. In this spirit, the highly distasteful, North Korean-style, hour-long military parade past the Cenotaph was led by the War Widows Association - their spouses killed in recent military adventures. A large delegation from the Korean Veterans Association also joined the parade, a war which cost the lives of 1,139 British personnel - a drop in the blood-stained ocean though, compared to the staggering number of Koreans and Chinese who were killed (the association is to be dissolved, by the way, seeing how most of the survivors are now in their 80s or older). Naturally, prince Andrew and the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, laid wreaths at Camp Bastion in Helmand province in Afghanistan - the prince remarking he was also remembering those who died in the Falklands, another gallant ‘anti-fascist’ war to defend British liberties from evil Argentinian Hitlers. Imperialism may not be perfect, it seems, but it always comes decent in the end.

Consensus

You can all but guarantee that the remembrance commemorations and establishment rewriting of history will carry on for many years to come, unless the workers’ movement and the left can organise to challenge the consensus. Regrettably though, there is very little sign of that at the moment. Indeed, the left just disappears on Remembrance Sunday, etc - the likes of the Stop the War Coalition being too scared to mount any sort of protest or demonstration in case they come across as the loony lefties of the popular imagination. Instead, what open dissent there is comes from the likes of Islam4UK or Muslims Against Crusaders (both now proscribed organisations, perhaps not coincidentally).

One obvious manifestation of the stifling conformity that surrounds this issue are those tacky plastic red poppies, which last year generated sales of £42.8 million for the Royal British Legion. Nowadays it is near impossible to avoid them, and it almost goes without saying that the Cenotaph on November 10 was a sea of red poppies. Then look at the media: virtually everyone is wearing one - regardless of whether they be a political correspondent or quiz show presenter. You stand out if you do not have one pinned dutifully to your lapel. Whilst you can innocently shrug your shoulders and wonder what all the fuss is about - hey, poppies are merely a sign of respect - the cumulative effect is pernicious, acting to reinforce an oppressively dominant viewpoint. Those who hold a contrasting opinion run the danger of being anathematised by officialdom and sections of the press.

The BBC, for example, says that poppy-wearing is entirely voluntary - there is no three-line whip. Of course not. Official guidelines remind presenters, however, that poppies “may be worn on screen from 06.00 Saturday October 26 to 23.59 on Remembrance Day, Monday November 11”, just in case you forget. And, in reality, woe betide any prominent media figure that fails to wear one - the poppy police are out on permanent patrol. Jonathan Ross had one digitally superimposed on him during a transmission of Film 2003, a BBC spokeswoman explaining that this was the “only way to ensure he was respectfully attired”.1 In 2006 the BBC presenter, Huw Edwards, acquired a poppy halfway through a news bulletin following a complaint from a viewer;2 and who can forget the Jon Snow scandal of the same year, when the veteran Channel 4 news anchor man, who refuses to wear any sort of political symbol whilst on air, condemned the “unpleasant breed of poppy fascism”. Maybe proving his point, an outraged Gulf War veteran declared that “any questioning of the poppy can only cause anguish to the people that have worn it with pride over the years” - meanwhile another Channel 4 news presenter, Sarah Smith, disagreed with Snow on the rather paradoxical grounds that, given “they are so ubiquitous”, not wearing one “makes more of a statement than having one”.3 On that basis, the Channel 4 bosses - or the BBC, for that matter - should make poppy-wearing compulsory, along with black ties and tragic facial expressions when a member of the royal family dies.

More recently, on November 3, Benjamin Zephaniah, Rastafarian dub poet and professor of creative writing at Brunel University, took part in the BBC’s Question time show wearing a white poppy - a pacifist symbol since 1933 and distributed by the Peace Pledge Union, a relatively big movement prior to World War II. BBC staff seemed to have persuaded Zephaniah to pin it rather low down on his shirt, so that most of the time it was not visible. Of course, communists would not promote white poppies or pacifism - though it was certainly the case that when they were first introduced people would lose their jobs for wearing them, and Margaret Thatcher expressed her “deep distaste” for the symbol. But at least Zephaniah defied the poppy police and in that anti-establishment sense we would actively encourage others to emulate his example.

There have been some other objections to the official remembrance jamboree, even if very low-key and of an almost legalistic nature. Norman Bonney, a director of the National Secular Society and an emeritus professor of sociology at Edinburgh Napier University, has called for the Church of England to abandon its role in the Cenotaph ceremony. He argues in an academic paper (‘The Cenotaph: a contested and consensual symbol of remembrance’) that the monument’s designer, Edwin Lutyens, did not intend it to have any particular religious significance and points out that David Lloyd George’s cabinet rejected the Church of England’s requests for the Cenotaph to include a cross and to bear Christian inscriptions.4 The established church cannot claim to speak for everybody in 21st-century Britain, he goes on to say, and wants to see the event stripped of all its religious aspects and replaced with a “secular ceremony with which all can identify”.

In response, the church’s director of communications, Arun Arora, accused the NSS of engaging in a “rather sad” attempt at publicity-seeking and - even worse - of trying to “politicise” Remembrance Sunday for their own ends. Coming from a spokesperson of the CoE, which obviously wants to retain its monopoly over sanctified grief and official mourning, this is ironic indeed.

Similarly, the good burghers of Plymstock were horrified that the United Kingdom Independence Party laid a wreath at the Burrow Hill war memorial, because it had a Ukip logo in the centre. Uproar. The Tory and Labour leaders on the local council instantly united to denounce Ukip’s “very bad taste” - with the Labour boss, Tudor Evans, stressing how his grouping has always strived to make Remembrance Day an “apolitical event”, and his Tory equivalent claimed to be “appalled” by Ukip’s “overtly political” act. In fact the ‘apolitical’ poppy is a potent symbol of British imperialist ideology. Doubtlessly with some justification, David Salmon, Ukip’s chairman for Plymouth and South West Devon, was “boiling and furious” at this reaction from the mainstream parties - maintaining that they were the same wreaths laid last year and nothing was said then. He was backed up by the British Legion, which issued a short statement saying wreaths were produced every year with logos for all the mainstream political parties.

In many ways it is an extraordinary state of affairs that in a country where Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sasson are still taught almost universally in schools (this writer studied them for his O level in English literature) there is such automatic hostility to anyone who questions the official narrative and rituals that surround war commemorations. But Remembrance Day has been totally institutionalised in a manner akin to Holocaust Memorial Day, and to raise doubts is not just disloyal - it is a violation of the natural moral order. It would be more accurate to say that Remembrance Day is actually misremembrance day.

Brutalised

Yet at the same time we have a reminder of the real nature of British imperialism and warfare in general - the conviction of ‘Marine A’ for the cold-blooded murder - or execution - of a wounded Taliban insurgent in Helmand province in September 2011. Two other soldiers accused of murder were cleared, both insisting that they were “shocked” when A opened fire on someone who was clearly alive. He was given a mandatory life sentence, though it is a fairly safe bet that, once the dust settles, he will get up to two-thirds of his sentence knocked off - he will be formally sentenced next month after psychiatric reports have been presented.

An extraordinary feature of this incident was not so much the murder, but the fact that a helmet camera worn by ‘Marine B’ captured the moment of the killing - the footage itself was not released due to the government’s insistence that it would be a “recruitment gift” for terrorists. But the audio from the video was released, and on this members of the eight-man patrol are heard abusing and laughing at the captured Taliban fighter - ‘Marine C’, the youngest of the accused men, says: “I’ll put one in his head if you want”, to which A replies: “No, not in his head, ’cause that’ll be fucking obvious”. He then leans over and shoots the insurgent in the chest with a pistol, before telling him: “There you are: shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” A few moments later A is heard telling his comrades: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I’ve just broken the Geneva convention.” B laughs and suggests that if someone asked about the gunfire they should claim it was a “warning shot”. As it happened, the video was discovered a year later on another marine’s laptop during an unrelated investigation.

Significantly, it is the first time a British serviceman or woman has been found guilty of murder during an overseas operation in modern times. The army top brass described the incident as a “truly shocking and appalling aberration” - not the sort of thing our British chaps and chapesses normally do, you understand.

In a word, bullshit - something pointed out by Joe Glenton in The Guardian (November 8). Glenton, as our regular readers will know, refused to be sent on a second tour in Afghanistan and ended up serving five months in a military prison. For Glenton, the public had been given an unexpected glimpse of “war’s unsanitised face”, just as “soldier worship” is about to “hit its tedious annual peak”. He reminded us that from the outset this episode has been written through with the “brand of self-delusion” that has come to typify the supposed ‘good war’ being fought in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Whilst he thinks Royal Marine commandos are the best light role infantry in the world “bar none”, the question we ought to be “brave enough” to ask is: why is there such surprise when atrocities occur? To understand the actions of someone like Marine A we have to look at their “daily experience”, which, of course, can “never be divorced from the overarching political context”. In other words, yes, not all soldiers are like Marine A. But it is not just a case of a few ‘rotten apples’ either. If you send troops into a brutal environment, they will become even more brutalised than they have been trained to be from the start - so don’t turn round and talk crap about the ‘glorious tradition’ of the British army. What happened in Helmand province is part of that tradition.

After all, think about it - was what Marine A did that much of an exception? Absolutely not. For instance, files have recently been released about the so-called ‘Kenyan emergency’ - when tens of thousands were beaten, tortured and killed by the British authorities. Typical acts of a relatively minor colonial war, so just imagine what British imperialism can do in a major conflict.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.theguardian.com/media/2003/nov/11/bbc. broadcasting1.

2. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-414004/ BBCs-Huw-mysteriously-acquires-poppy-half-way-news-bulletin.html.

3. www.standard.co.uk/news/newsreader-jon-snow-rails-against-poppy-fascism-7263001.html.

4. www.secularism.org.uk/news/2013/11/new-pa­per-calls-for-secular-ceremony-of-remembrance-at-the-cenotaph.