I’ve noticed it over the last few years, but not stopped to think about it: the over-the-topness of our armistice remembrances. We used to wear poppies for a few days; now you proclaim yourself a pacifist traitor, if you don’t display one for at least a few weeks. And that’s not enough! No, there have to be poppy rivers, poppy mountains, poppy lakes, each one more artistic than the next. The popular media are full of sentimental stories of sacrifice, heroism, and gallantry, always British of course, in two world wars and since, forgetting that for hundreds of years and half of the 20th century Britain was a colonial power which had stolen land and wealth around the globe, killing and enslaving as it went.
The first war was a vicious disaster whereby the great competing powers of the world sacrificed their young men out of nationalist pride and desire for economic dominance. The second, created by the humiliating treaty that ended the first, saw Britain make a belated defence of democracy against German and later Japanese fascism. My father fought with the Chindits in Burma. Why were we fighting in Burma, when we needed soldiers for the war in Europe? Because we were defending our Indian colony of which Burma was a part. Even in a war which was a brave struggle against fascism, we still threw lives away for the cause of empire. Without doubt in both wars, as in conflicts since, there was genuine sacrifice and courage, for a more or less just cause in the the 2nd, but for the preservation of British dominance in the first.
Of course we should remember, but we should do so accurately, so that we can protect the future from the hypocrisies of the past.
And we should not remember so partially. We tend to celebrate the sacrifices of armed forces, rather than civilians; of men rather that women; of British rather than other nationalities, especially our enemies. Peter Swan, one of the last survivors of the 1st War, who joined up when he was sixteen and fought throughout Ypres and other terrible battles, told me once, “Son, they didnae train us tae go oot an’ lay doon wur lives; they trained us tae kill, an’ we did it well.” We forget this because we don’t like to think of fathers, brothers, sons and pals as trained killers, but our hypocrisy means that veterans are only ever considered as victims and not as perpetrators of terrible violence, and who can say how much this denial contributes to their depressions and suicides?
Indeed the excessive / aggressive remembrance seasons which have become the norm don’t care too much about the dead and the maimed, otherwise our veterans would have better pensions, housing and care. No, it’s about the big battalions of rich people and institutions who know that patriotism helps cover up the appalling injustices of our society, and keeps armed forces in readiness to support their economic requirements as in Iraq, or in our alliance with Saudi Arabia. Such people have always existed, but the sinister thing at the moment is the way in which large sections of the working citizens of the country, well, certainly of England, find this type of patriotisn congenial, just as they support Brexit, dislike immigrants, and detest bleeding hearts who want social and international justice.
It has been called populism, as manifest also in Trump’s USA, Salvini’s Italy, Erdogan’s Turkey, Netanyahu’s Israel, Putin’s Russia. I’m not sure what it should be called but I am sure that this mixture of ignorance, prejudice, self- assertion and brutality, uses a twisted patriotism as one of its most powerful weapons. It may not be too late for people who truly care for our nations, to oppose it, but we need to expose its lies wherever they appear. Otherwise we may find ourselves assisting the birth of something monstrous.
W. B. Yates saw it coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?