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Today marks 100 years since the end of the First World War and commemorations will be taking place across the land. I will be overseas for much of the pomp and circumstance, but the build-up each year appears to begin earlier and earlier. As a pacifist, I always find this time of year very troubling, particularly the focus on the Royal British Legion [RBL] poppy.
Most combatants (both axis and allies) in both world wars were conscripted, that is they were legislatively compelled into military uniform. This was also the case in the UK, with the passing of the Military Service Act, 1916, Military Training Act, 1939 and National Service Act, 1948 ensuring that men had little option but to spend a period of time in the military. Objections on the grounds of conscience were legally tolerated, although not always upheld. As I have written about previously, this was a particularly treacherous path to follow in WWI.
So, for many men* during the period of 1916-1960, military service was not a choice, thus it makes sense to talk about a society which owes a debt to these individuals for the sacrifice of their time, energy and in some cases, lives. Remember these men were removed from their jobs and their families, any aspirations had to be put on hold until after the war, and who knew when that was likely to occur?
Since 1960, military service in the UK has been on a voluntary basis, although, we can of course revisit criminological discussions around free will, to ascertain how freely decisions to enlist can truly be. Nevertheless, there is a substantive difference between servicemen during that period and those that opt for military service after that period. Such a distinction appears to pass by many, including the RBL, who are keen to commemorate and fetishize the serviceman as intrinsically heroic and worthy of society’s unquestioning support.
The decision to wear a poppy, whether RBL red or peace pledge union [ppu] white is a personal one. The former is seen as the official national symbol of commemoration, designed to recognise the special contribution of service personnel and their families. The latter is often attacked as an affront to British service personnel, although the ppu explicitly note that the white poppy represents everybody killed during warfare, including all military combatants and victims. It draws no distinctions across national borders, neither does it privilege the military over the civilian victims. These different motifs, each with their own specific narratives, pose the question of what it is as individuals and as a society we mean by ‘Lest we forget’.
- Do we want to remember those conscripted soldiers and swear that as a society we will not force individuals into the military, regardless of their personal viewpoints, desires, aspirations?
- Do we want to remember soldiers and swear that as a society we will not go to war again?
If it is the latter, we should take more notice of the work of RBL, who although coy about their relationships with arms dealers, accept a great deal of money from them (cf. Tweedy, 2015, BAE Systems, 2018). We should also consider the beautiful and poignant display at the Tower of London in 2014, entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (Cummins and Piper, 2014). The week after this display began to be dismantled, a dinner for arms dealers was held at the same venue. Whilst RBL is keen to deny that their poppy is partisan and political, it is evident that this little paper flower is not neutral. Discussions and arguments on social media have demonstrated that this motif can and is used as a battering ram to close down questions, anxieties and deliberation. Even more worrying is the rewriting of history, that WWI and WWII were won by British forces, neglecting that these were world wars, involving individuals; men, women and children, from all over the globe. This narrative seems to have attached itself to the furor around Brexit, “we saved Europe, they owe us”!
For me, on an extremely personal level, we should be looking to end war, not looking for ways in which to commemorate past wars.
*For more detail around the conscription of women during WWII see Nicholson (2007) and Elster and Sørensen (2010).
BAE Systems, (2018), ‘Supporting the Armed Forces,’ BAE Systems, [online]. Available from: https://www.baesystems.com/en-uk/our-company/corporate-responsibility/working-responsibly/supporting-communities/supporting-the-armed-forces [Last accessed 20 October 2018]
Cummins, Paul, (2016), ‘Important Notice,’ Paul Cummins Ceramics, [online]. Available from: https://www.paulcumminsceramics.com/important-notice/ [Last accessed 11 November 2016]
Cummins, Paul and Piper, Tom, (2014), Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, [Ceramic Installation], (London: Tower of London)
Elster, Ellen and Sørensen, Majken Jul, (2010), ‘(Eds), Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology, (London: War Resisters’ International)
Military Service Act, 1916, (London: HMSO)
Military Training Act, 1939, (London: HMSO)
Milmo, Cahai, (2014), ‘The Crass Insensitivity’ of Tower’s Luxury Dinner for Arms Dealers, Days After Poppy Display, i-news, Thursday 27 November 2014, [online]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-crass-insensitivity-of-tower-s-luxury-dinner-for-arms-dealers-days-after-poppy-display-9888507.html [Last accessed 27 November 2014]
National Service Act, 1948, (London: HMSO)
Nicholson, Hazel, (2007), ‘A Disputed Identity: Women Conscientious Objectors in Second World War Britain,’ Twentieth Century British History, 18, 4: 409-28
peace pledge union [ppu], (2018), ‘Remembrance & White Poppies,’ peace pledge union, [online]. Available from: https://ppu.org.uk/remembrance-white-poppies [Last accessed 11 November 2018]
Tweedy, Rod, (2015), My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance, (London: Veterans for Peace UK), [online]. Available from: http://vfpuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/my_name_is_legion-web.pdf [Last accessed 14 May 2017]