Monday, 4 November 2013

Why I Wear a White Poppy

It's that time of year again. This month sees the 95th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the Great War, the most efficient and industrialised slaughter of human beings for imperial ambition ever seen up until that point. 

In France, the fashion is to wear a bright blue cornflower to convey respects to the dead. 

In Scotland, for many years, the fashion was to wear an Earl Haig red poppy, named for the incompetent butcher who sent hundreds of thousands of working-class conscripts to their deaths on the Western Front. 

Recently, many have become uncomfortable with the militarisation of the red poppy symbol, and the pressure placed on people to wear it. It has been transmogrified into a symbol of support for the current wars; unlike the war against fascism, the only purpose of which are to act as a subservient implementer of American foreign policy in countries to which they have never been invited, and which have inevitably seen both atrocities committed against the civilian populations and Scottish soldiers killed at the side of dusty desert roads.

The slogan of the Poppy Appeal this year isn't one of commemorating the dead of past wars, or the bravery of those who fought fascism. It is Shoulder to Shoulder with all Who Serve". That isn't commemorating the men and women who saved the world from HItlerism in the 1940s: it's about supporting the military - and, by extension, its current wars - of here and now.

So with the red poppy hijacked, what of us who wish to commemorate the slaughter of war, not celebrate it; who mourn all of the victims of all wars, not just "ours"; who seek an end to war, not just to "support our troops" regardless of their behaviour?

The Peace Pledge Union's white poppy is my lapel badge of choice in the second week in November. 

The white poppy was first proposed in 1926 in an attempt, even back then at the height of Empire, to decouple the commemoration of the Armistice from a veneration of militarism. The first such poppies finally appeared in 1933 in an attempt to challenge the rush to war, and to challenge the glorification of the bloody slaughter of the trenches less than two decades earlier. 

A white poppy is a pledge to challenge the culture of militarism so prevalent in the United Kingdom today. To recognise that these working-class kids are often economic conscripts, forced into the armed forces against their better judgement because the governing class have destroyed jobs and industries in their towns: children - actual children, too young to vote, too young to marry - from Paisley, Portsmouth, Prestatyn, and Portadown have British Army recruiting officers coming into their schoolhouses and extolling the virtues of the "adventure". 

These kids, with no other glimmer of hope in a destroyed economy, are forced in all but name to "join up". They aren't told of the dangers that await them. They aren't told that there is a pretty decent chance they'll be coming back in a metal box in the hold of a cargo plane, covered by a Union Jack, their mother weeping as the box is carried off the plane, her son or daughter's life ended in the service of the United States of America. 

They aren't told of the horrors that infest the mind of those who've been sent to fight and kill for a governing class. They aren't told that it's so difficult to return to society after living and breathing violence and death for so long that two thousand of their comrades are living rough in Scotland alone. 

So for the economic conscripts, forced to fight for a cause they don't understand for a country that isn't theirs and in a country they can't find on a map, I wear the white poppy. 

Instead of the black centre of the red poppy which read HAIG FUND, the centre of the white poppy cries out the simple plea "peace", and previously "no more war". Margaret Thatcher had "deep distaste" for the symbol, recognising that an acknowledgement of the horrors of war would affect the success of the military-industrial complex of which she was such a devoted fan. 

More importantly, the white poppy, as well as emphasising pacifism and opposition to war, represents things that the military equivalent cannot. It represents commemoration of those conscript boys who, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, were murdered at dawn in a French battlefield by their "own" side. 

It commemorates the hundreds of thousands of innocents slaughtered in the bloodbath of Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that donating money to the participants of only one side never can. 

We should be saddened at every death in combat, whether it's a family in Kabul murdered by occupation forces, or a wee boy from Govan or Tollcross or Maryhill who never got the chance to live because he was seduced by the false promises of the officer class into an illegal war (as in Iraq) or a morally repugnant adventure (as in Afghanistan). But that sadness shouldn't be used to continually justify and glorify war, and in a society which is constantly being urged to see soldiers as "heroes", that is what's happening. 

I wear a white poppy instead of a red poppy because I want to commemorate the victims of war. I don't want to celebrate it. I want to demand peace, not celebrate the deeds of, to pick one at random, the Parachute Regiment. I take inspiration in this from John Maclean, the great Glasgow socialist who opposed equally the slaughter of German workers at the behest of their ruling class and the slaughter of Scottish workers at the behest of ours. And all for a war which had the single aim of deciding who would be allowed to exploit human beings across the world in their Empire. 

And isn't it a bloody disgrace that the British government is happy to send these working-class kids to be mutilated in the service of the American Republican Party, and when they come back from war, it has to be a charity that supports them?

As Maclean said, it is our business to throw off the patriotism and nationalism and to develop instead a "class patriotism", uniting Scottish workers, Irish worker, German workers, French workers, refusing to murder each other in the cause of global capitalism. 

I'm sure that if Maclean was alive today, he would be sickened by the spectacle, almost a century after the start of the Great War, the War to End all Wars, of working-class British kids are out killing working-class Afghan kids at the behest of the American Republican Party and the millionaire war-criminal Tony Blair. 

That's why I'm proud to wear a white poppy.

1 comment:

  1. It's hard to argue against the futility of war, particularly the First World War but let's not paint our ancestors as mindless sheep who followed the upper class to war. The men in trenches might have hated it and they may have despised the slaughter around them, but they stuck it out. The prospect of a German victory in 1918 was too horrifying to contemplate; the Treaty of Brest-Livtosk showed what terms the western allies could expect. Faced with a choice of the inequality of the pre-war order or Prussian militarism, the working class signed up in droves before conscription in 1916.

    Had the war not broken out in 1914, we would have likely seen civil war in Ireland and a general strike in Britain. The world was changing. We would have a Labour government in 1924. The war forever smashed the elite's tight grasp of wealth; they still hold much, more much, than they should but the idea of somebody doffing their cap at a well dressed gentleman stranger in the street is unthinkable now.

    That's not to say that they enjoyed fighting the war, but they certainly thought it was worth fighting. Not every Tommy was a well versed socialist speaker or a gentrified poet; all were acutely aware of the threat of the German state. They were let down by the peace of 1919; it was harsh without neutering Germany and was lenient enough to make France keep itself armed. The Second World War brought benefits to the working class that have been eroded ever since - the challenge is to protect these by form of democratic participation, not class warfare.

    It's of course your right to wear the White Poppy, but I wear the red poppy to commemorate (not celebrate) the sacrifice and I earnestly hope we see the end to war. However, to suggest that all war is shaped by the upper orders who herd our young people to the front is an insult to the intelligence of our soldiers, past and serving.