“Respect our boys…” We are not remembering wartime sacrifice, we are remembering propaganda
It’s rare to read about the Blitz in a British newspaper and see references to the civil disobedience during that time. In fact, the London Blitz — there were other Blitzes all over the country — was not a time of quiet acquiescence by the population. There were significant protests about the quality of shelters and the government was forced to allow civilians to shelter in the Tube stations as a result. Blackout during bombing raids also provided cover for a lot of sexual shenanigans, theft and murder. Claiming your horrible husband or inconvenient neighbour had been killed in a raid was startlingly common.
Similarly, the way the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force prosecuted the war is not remembered in a balanced or thorough way. What Remembrance has become is the remembering of stories told in wartime propaganda and in the wave after wave of Second World War movies that were released throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In Hollywood, the Second World War was Good vs. Bad, the Honourable Allies vs. The Dastardly Nazis.
War is not that easy or clean. Dresden is one of the most well-known war crimes of WWII but it has only been seen as such in the past forty years or so, despite Kurt Vonnegut describing the event powerfully in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-5. In his autobiography, Vonnegut wrote:
The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”
Remembrance has become a business and also, for some, a grift. Every year, those tabloid twins, The Sun and The Daily Mirror, engage in a battle of oneupmanship over who can be most ‘patriotic’, while the Premier League pins poppies on cartoonish mascots, and MPs crow that they are the most respectful of all the respectful patriotic patriots.
Most people who died in World War I and World War II did not “die for our freedom,” but because they were civilians who could not escape or conscripted servicepeople who had no choice but to go where they were told and fight who they were told to fight.
That the British Union of Fascists was significantly supported in the years running up to the second war, and that we only avoided being ruled by a Hitler-hugging King because the establishment found his choice of partner distasteful, rather than his antisemitism, racism, and narcissistic will to power, is played down immensely. Britain was one of the good guys, you see, and whatever Irish people, Indians, or black people from across the world might tell you, that’s the official line.
The Poppy was originally intended — or so the myth has it — to be a symbol of peace and renewal, representing the flowers blooming in the desperate mud of Flanders. But it is no longer that. Instead, it has become an imperialist badge, placed on police cars and fighter jets, made a mockery in grotesque garden displays and pinned to cartoon dinosaurs waving at football matches. It has become something you must wear or you hate freedom. The freedom not to wear a Poppy or the freedom to dissent is not an option. To reject the Poppy is to reject ‘our boys’ you see, even if you happen to be an Irish footballer who doesn’t believe those boys were yours or someone whose family has seen first hand the horror of being part of the military that is valorised in politicised commemorations.
You’ll often see Poppy patriots saying that ‘young people’ don’t understand what sacrifice is, conveniently forgetting — until the next Help For Heroes fundraising drive — that young people, especially young men, have been fed into the military meat grinder more consistently over the past 20 years than at any time since the 1960s. Sometimes I wear a poppy, sometimes I don’t, but what I don’t do is think that buying a little paper symbol is a substitute for agitating for justice for victims of violence and service people alike all year round. Far too many Poppy patriots just pop their pound into a collection box at the start of November and never think the rest of the year about the policies that put veterans in such desperate places.
Remembering is good. Just ask yourself who is telling you to remember, what they want you to remember, and what they want you to forget.