Remembrance is about the present and the future not just the past, writes Alex Snowdon
The officially-approved politicisation of Remembrance Sunday has much in common with Help for Heroes, Armed Forces Day and the whole patriotic sanitisation of World War One that surrounds the ongoing centenary of that industrial-scale nightmare.
Together with state-led Islamophobia (like the 'Prevent' programme) and the 'British values' agenda in schools, these are the main planks of a concerted offensive in recent years to roll back the growth in anti-war sentiment that accompanied the 'War on Terror', especially the mass demonstrations against war in Iraq.
Public opinion, especially from 2001, has historically shifted in an anti-war direction. This has inevitably meant increased public scepticism about the role of the military, and of the British state in its actions abroad. (By the way, see the recent Guardian profile of novelist John le Carre for a great personal illustration of this shift).
The response from right-wing media, successive governments, the military top brass and the wider British state has taken the various forms noted above. It is a battle for hearts and minds, a battle of ideas, where the goal is to shore up support for militarism, nationalism and war. They want to regain lost ground.
This battle for hearts and minds is essential if the British state is to pursue its ambitions in the future: more wars, yes, but also more covert or smaller-scale forms of intervention. History becomes a weapon in shaping what kind of world we live in.
It's also about the militarisation of 'domestic security' - the way the police function, the massive increase in surveillance, the way public space is policed and managed, and so on. It is even reflected in the shifting language – notice, for example, the obsession with ‘security’ in today’s political language, and the way that can justify almost anything.
So, this is the significance of Remembrance Sunday, of the way it is cynically exploited, and of the debates around it. It is why it matters that almost everyone appearing on BBC TV for weeks in advance must wear a poppy, that there is hysterical denunciation of anyone who dares to dissent (from Jeremy Corbyn to a footballer from Derry), and that poppy selling is ubiquitous in high streets.
The now-dominant approach is hypocritical because it co-exists with pursuing yet more war in today's world. It promotes the idea that war's victims are 'heroes', which makes it all seem justified (this is the main reason I include Help for Heroes in the list above). It substitutes empty symbols and rituals for genuinely seeking to understand what happened. It cheerleads for nationalism. It focuses overwhelmingly on those who served in the armed forces, neatly obscuring the reality that nowadays most of those killed in wars are civilians.
The antidote is to tell the truth about what really happened in the wars of the past and about what is going on today. It is to promote a message of peace, not endless war. It is to expose as hypocrites those who sanction wars, arms sales and state repression while wearing the red poppy and uttering platitudes. It is to share the literature and art that expresses uncomfortable, complex truths about World War One and the history of war.
It is to commemorate all those - of all countries, and civilians as well as soldiers - killed in wars. It is to, politely but firmly, say no to the obligatory wearing of a red poppy (and to explain why). It might mean wearing a white poppy instead. It is to defend those who are attacked for not complying with the enforced style of ‘commemoration’.
It also means campaigning and mobilising for policies that can shape a better – more peaceful, egalitarian and genuinely secure - world: from scrapping nuclear weapons to rolling back the militarisation of domestic law enforcement and public space, from protecting civil liberties to taking a stand against bombing of Syria, from stopping arms trading with Israel and the Gulf states to ditching the repressive 'Prevent' programme.
In so many ways, Remembrance is about the present and the future not just the past. Those who rule over us know it all too well. Their fetishisation of the whole business is in many ways a symptom of their weakness. We should be clear and unambiguous in offering an alternative vision of the past, present and future.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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