Sunday, 8 November 2015

The struggle of forgetting against memory

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.

- Randolph Bourne
I remember the first time I watched the poppy ceremony. I was still at school, although off sick that day, or reckoning I was, and hence in front of the television in the morning when the ceremony was shown. I'm guessing it was 1982, since that was the year of the Falklands War, which along with the anti-nuclear sentiment of the time had made me a very anti-militarist teenager.

So when petals fell from the ceiling of Westminster Abbey, each single petal of the avalanche representing a life lost in the First World War, what I saw was not just the loss of life it symbolised, but the people on whom the leaves were falling. The great and good, the holders of power, the makers of decisions, the people in whose interests, as I saw it then, were responsible for all the death among which they were seated. I see it much the same way now.

One reads an image in one's own way, not always the way in which it is intended, and I read it as a scene covered in blood. I say the first time but I'm not sure that I've seen the ceremony since. Nor have I been able to wear a poppy. I don't think I've ever worn once since, although I wouldn't sign my name against that claim. But basically, I don't wear a poppy. It's something I don't do.

I've never talked about it much, because I've never been asked about it much. It's not something that I've asked other people not to do: it's something I don't do myself, just as I don't go to McDonald's and I don't send Xmas cards. Matter of fact I've probably had more conversations about Xmas cards than I have had about poppies.

But then again I emigrated nearly ten years ago. I don't know that I've been in Britain, in November, for a decade. I'm glad about this, because I don't want to have arguments about poppies, or be put on the spot because I do not wear one. From this distance - perhaps from the viewpoint of mostly viewing my home country through a screen, it often seems that not wearing a poppy is no longer a private matter. It is a choice that you have to defend, one that you need to justify to others. It is a suspect political act.

Well, the internet magnifies what is often very small, and people are not always such arses to you in person, but the militarism that has overtaken Britain over the course of that last decade isn't such a small thing. Militarism in the sense of an instinctive and perpetual keenness to engage in war and an equal keenness the motives of people whose instinct is the opposite. But the kind of militarism, too, which loves soldiers, which venerates mlitary uniforms and the people wearing them.

My own football team started holding a Military Day. Why? What has that to do with anything? What are uniforms and soldiers to do with watching yellow-shirted players trying to kick a ball into a net? It says
the club fully supports the work that our military personnel do around the world
which is very far from my opinion, but why does it come into it either way? Is this normal, nowadays? Have I been away so long? Did they do this back in the days of the Falklands War? They didn't, of course. But war was not so normal then.

I didn't miss a home game at that club for more than ten years. I think I'd probably miss these ones. Or maybe just stop going altogether.

Still, it's a small thing, to miss a football game, even if I didn't always think so. Worse things happen in war. And I am not there any more, and places, countries and football clubs all change in your absence. I do not have to worry about poppies in November. In Spain I can look at poppies without any associations that I didn't get from Monet. They do not stand for anything. I am not obliged to have an opinion.

Poppies don't stand for remembrance here. Matter of fact, nothing stands for remembrance. In Spain, the rule is not remembrance, but forgetting. More than the rule, the law. And more than to forget, but to be forbidden to find out what you have never known. The location of the bodies of your family, the place they died, the names of the people who ordered they be killed. The denial of funds to find and investigate mass graves. The refusal to discuss the country's recent history. The silence about guilt. In Spain, uniquely in Europe and illegally in international law, crimes against humanity committed in that very country may not be legally redressed.

It is the opposite, but the same. It says, as does the poppy bullying: this is done and settled, this is the account of history that you must accept. For sure, the consequences are different. To be denied the knowledge that you seek is not to be hounded or harrassed, though which is worse depends on what it is you need to know. But either way the effect, the deliberate effect, is to prevent the asking of questions that people need to ask. And either way the beneficiaries are the partisans of war and uniforms and the sort of people who make it their business to hound their fellow-citizens.

There are reasons. Reasons for forgetting what people wish had never happened, as there are reasons for remembering what should never have taken place. But you see things in your own way and you remember them the same. What I remember is seeing the poppy ceremony and hating it. I read the image in my own way. I read the way that it is used. And I hate it.

1 comment:

  1. I agree entirely.

    In the late 80s I took part in quite a few Remembrance Sunday parades when I was in Cubs and (briefly) Scouts. I always recall it as a time for commemmorating the victims of war, and there was no long build-up to the day or mass display of poppies, despite (or because of?) the fact that it wasn't long after the Falklands, soldiers were getting killed from time-to-time in Northern Ireland, and many more WWII veterans were still alive.

    As you suggest, the institution of permanent war has encoraged greater militarism, but I think the main factor in this state-sanctioned veneration of 'heroes' is the fact that it represents a desperate grab for the 'virtues' that made Britain a great power, at a time when the armed forces are coming in for constant depletion and Britain is making increasingly mad attempts not to be left out of the 'concert' of leading powers.

    I should also add that in everyday life there is no fuss about poppy-wearing, and most people don't bother. When it comes to public life and the media, however, the drive for conformism is incredible, and in this it represents many other issues that the media and the establishment consider much more important than ordinary people do.