Skip to content

Remembrance Today: Poppies, Grief and Heroism – Ted Harrison

October 30, 2016

rtI read this book on the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

This book says much that I have been saying – that remembrance ceremonies serve to glorify, to reinforce hierarchy war and recruit future combatants -for years. The fact that the author isn’t a pacifist but almost part of the establishment gives it more clout.

The chapter on poppies’ is particularly good.

Rolls of honour, medals regardless of rank since the Crimea have served to democratise the forces.

Computer games and drones are pressing issues as the world moves on.


War is nothing like a John Wayne movie . . . and there is nothing heroic about the deaths of countless civilians. Calling our soldiers heroes is an attempt to stifle criticism of the wars we are fighting in. It leads us to that most subtle piece of propaganda: You might not support the war but you must support our heroes, ergo you support the war.

of the subtle shift in the meaning of the poppy symbol, for the poppy to be worn not solely as a sign of Remem­brance, but as evidence of the wearer’s patriotism.

The poppy fascists have won the day in Britain. I lost two uncles to German bullets. What did they die for? I suggest that they did not die so that the poppy could be used as a kind of reverse white feather — that the sheer absence of one would denote a lack of patriotism. I buy a poppy every year because the cause is a fine one, but I keep it firmly in my pocket. I blame some of our television companies for forcing poppies on staff and guests, as well as our politi­cians.

Today some of the words used in connection with Remem­brance do more than talk of past sacrifice. The slogan chosen by the Royal British Legion in 2011, its ninetieth year, was ‘shoulder to shoulder with all who serve’. In choosing these words the organi­zation was deliberately going beyond its prime remit, the welfare of ex-service personnel in need. It was making a statement that it supported all in the military, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the cause for which the politicians had sent them to fight. It was going beyond its core dedication, ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today’, which is to do with remembering soldiers who have died in wars to defend the nation. Standing shoulder to shoulder is implicitly a political statement of support for the use of military support in any cir­cumstance that the politicians of the day might sanction.

It is now not so much an act of dedication to peace as a statement of support for the use of armed force.

This book does not intend to walk on the sensibilities of those for whom Remembrance is a comfort. If the familiar rituals are to change, then it should be gradual and evolutionary. Nothing I write is intended to belittle the true courage of many. And true courage is most often to be found not in medal-winning heroics, but in the unsung actions of ordinary men and women who, despite being scared almost beyond endurance, are determined not to let down their col­leagues, families and country.

The tears on the faces of veterans may not solely be for lost comrades; sometimes they will be tears of shame and guilt. Atonement rituals following warfare can be found in many cul­tures and many eras. Christian warriors in the Middle Ages were required to do penance for a year to expiate the sins they had com­mitted on the battlefield, noted the philosopher and psychiatrist David Livingstone Smith. ‘In ancient Rome, Vestal virgins ritually bathed Roman soldiers to symbolically wash away the moral stain of killing. Similar ablutions were performed in soci­eties as far-flung as the Masai of East Africa and the Plain Indians of North America.'”

Livingstone Smith suggests that 98 per cent of combatants ex­perience some degree of guilt, remorse or psychiatric damage after around twelve weeks of fighting. The 2 per cent who do not are those with psychopathic traits. As Livingstone Smith observed, this 2 per cent make the best soldiers and often come back as decorated heroes. ‘They are unable to experience concern for others and enjoy the exercise of violence and cruelty.’ Of the 98 per cent, he noted that ‘soldiers and veterans often carry an immense burden of guilt because they may have done things in the course of duty that violate the primal taboo of killing one’s own.'”

To many Germans the end of the war is associated with November 9th, the day when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdi­cated. The day is regarded as a German ‘day of destiny’ for several other reasons, both good and bad. November 9th was the night of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of 1938 that presaged the Holocaust of the Jews. And November 9th was also the night the Berlin Wall came down, leading to the eventual downfall of the Communist bloc.

In Berlin two days ago to commemorate the date, the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, delivered a speech about the enduring importance of the EU, and the need to preserve the single currency. He also issued a warning against the return of nationalism that, to many ears, will sound unduly shrill given the way he care­lessly associated Euroscepticism with the danger of war.

Douglas, the First Earl Haig, was the British military com­mander responsible for many of the tactics and military policies of the First World War. By some he was dubbed ‘Butcher Haig’ as so many men died under his command. He was also the com­mander who signed the death warrants of the many men exe­cuted by the Army for desertion or cowardice. Many of those men shot at dawn were suffering from shell shock, a condition known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When Haig left the Army he made some amends by dedicating the rest of his life to the welfare of his former troops. He was a founding member of the British Legion and for many years the sale of poppies was organized by the Haig Fund. The small black button in the centre of each poppy sold had the words ‘Haig Fund’ in­scribed on it.

The assumption is made that all who opt to become profes­sional soldiers, sailors or airmen and -women are heroes. It is implied that the act of signing up and volunteering is heroic. That the war the heroes are sent to fight might be illegal, immoral, fool­ish or unjustified is immaterial. That the soldier may be wounded in an accident or by friendly fire, as opposed to in the thick of battle with an enemy, is also by the way. Anyone who wears the uniform and is prepared to fight is a hero by this definition — even, presum­ably, the three NCOs who beat up a colleague for the offence of wearing the wrong shoes in the mess. They were allowed to remain in the forces after their drink-fuelled acts of violence, while their victim, who had survived Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Northern Ireland, suffered such severe head injuries and memory loss that they ended his seventeen-year Army career.

Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: