Yes, I suppose I agree with Scottish and English footballers wearing poppies at their match on Friday, but I do not agree that the poppy is not a political symbol. It used to be a-political, I think, as long as you weren’t a Kraut or a Nip, but in the last five years it has become a symbol above all of a kind of politics that elevates the UK, excusing all its crimes and glossing over all its current contributions to international disorder, at the expense of Johnny Foreigner, especially if he lives or works here. Hugh McDiarmid once said that Scotland would not be free intil the last minister was strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post. I do believe that the UK will never be sane until the last right-wing bigot is buried with the last copy of the Daily Mail protruding from his mouth. Of course I hasten to add that Jesus loves even right-wing bigots, but He is famous for being less particular than most of us.
If the poppy is simply a symbol of remembrance, then it becomes important to remember our dead accurately. So, our soldiers were never in the first instance meant in any conflict to “lay down their lives” but rather to kill our enemies. Given that in some instances our enemies were intent on doing serious harm to our population, killing them looks like an efficient way of stopping them, but why do we not remember therefore, our “heroic killers”? Doubtless because any such description brings us too close to the messy business of war, which has nothing to do with poppies falling from a corniced ceiling. Paddy Ashdown reminded a radio audience at the weekend rhat once signed up in the armed forces men and women have no choice about what they do. They obey orders, that’s it. If the orders are wise, they will kill lots of enemies by blowing their bodies to bits; if unwise, they are likely to suffer the same fate.
And then of course, accurate remembrance must include the facts of the wars into which our armed forces were ordered. The 1st World War was a contest of great armed powers jockeying for position in the world. The 2nd was a war against a vicious fascism, which initially had the support of many right- wing people in the UK. So I can see its necessity and worth. But when I ask why my father fought in Burma, the answer is not so much that the Japanese were fascists, as the fact that they threatened the British empire and interests in the far east. Hardly any of the wars since can be justified by the need to defend our population against attack, and even when that motive was alleged, as in the case of Saddam’s supposed ability to attack us in 45 minutes, the allegations were exposed as lies. The history of our use of our armed forces offers no grounds for assuming that they will only be ordered to kill enemies who want to do us harm, and plenty evidence that they will used to cover up the political miscalculations or to assist the upward mobility of our rulers.
That does not detract from the courage of our armed forces, who must obey orders, but it does raise questions about the motives of those who scream about remembrance but do not want us to remember too accurately. Their desire for pompous, sentimental pageantry which costs us nothing, is miles away from the real experience of the combatants in our wars, who often ended up with greater respect for the opposing combatants than for their own generals.
“Good morning, Good Morning,” the general said
as we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of them dead
and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
as they trudged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.
( Siegfried Sassoon)
Accurate remembrance is also an issue for the Christian Church, whose most basic act of worship obeys a command to “Do this in remembrance of me.” One way of reading the literature of the early church is that in time followers of Jesus became dissatisfied with the brief and pious phrases, that Jesus died for sinners, or for our sins, or our salvation, or for the New Covenant, and wanted to insist on a more detailed remembrance of his life, his teachings, his controversies, his arrest, his torture, his crucifixion, his agony, his death and burial. They knew this was a dangerous memory because it pointed away from the description of Jesus’ death as a divine transaction, towards the fear, loathing malice and treachery of the religious establishment of his people, and the cowardice of his closest disciples. Those details which were enshrined in the second generation of Christian writings, namely the Gospels, are much less comfortable for believers, and for religious amd civil powers, than the conventional formulas found even in St Paul’s letters. Those who receive the dangerous memory of Jesus, are faced with questions about religious arrogance and state brutality, not to mention the silent complicity of bystanders in atrocities they might have prevented.
Wilfrid Owen brings the memory of the war dead and the memory of Jesus together in his great poem, “On a Calvary near the Ancre”
One ever hangs where shelled roads part;
In this war He too lost a limb.
But his disciples hide apart
and now the soldiers bear with him.
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest
and in their faces there is pride
that they were flesh-marked by the Beast
by whom the gentle Christ’s denied.
The Scribes on all the people shove
and bawl allegiance to the state.
But they who love the greater love
lay down their lives, they do not hate.
Owen could write with integrity about lives laid down, because he knew in his own men what terrible pain and courage that act involved. I don’t suppose his poem will be read at Saturday’s Remembrance Lite tm or at many Remembrance ceremonies round the country on Sunday.