November has begun, which means the official commencement of the annual season for opinion articles about poppies. Although like Christmas, poppy-shaming has been starting earlier and earlier every year. Poppy shaming now starts so early that it has managed to go back in time and now starts before the actual start of WWI in 1914. This has caused a rupture in the space-time continuum and led to a paradoxical universe where sense and reason have broken down and we get ridiculous outcomes like Boris Johnson becoming Foreign Secretary and Liam Fox’s political career being rehabilitated. But they wear their poppies with pride.
Sense and reason has already broken down with the poppy fetish. What started as an emblem of mourning, a national outpouring of remembrance that war is destructive, meaningless and wracked with pain and grief, has over the years been coopted into a symbol of nationalistic glorification of the military. It’s become a recruiting tool for the armed forces and it gets painted on warplanes. That’s a bit like painting a peace symbol on a live nuclear warhead and claiming it represents CND. Oversized poppies are waved by children in army recruiting adverts while they wear t-shirts bearing the legend future cannon-fodder. It’s no longer a symbol of the horrors of war, it’s a symbol to glorify the militarism that breeds wars. The symbol that once spoke for the generation that fought the war to end all wars is now a symbol to attract young people into the army. Poppies have been hopelessly coopted by an establishment which reserves to itself the right to have another war if it thinks it’s in its interests.
Poppies have long since lost touch with their original meaning, but this year we’ve reached peak tastelessness with the poppy fetish. You can now buy a poppy crafted out of genuine First World War shell cases. Commemorate your ancestor’s life with a little part of the bombs that blew him to buggery for bugger all. Remember the dead with the implements of their destruction. It’s like commemorating the Holocaust with jewellery made from cannisters of poison gas, or selling little miniature hammers lovingly crafted out of Peter Sutcliffe’s weapon of choice in order to raise money for a women’s refuge. Inappropriate doesn’t even begin to describe it. Wear your WWI shell poppy, and you’re wearing on your lapel a little piece of something that maimed and killed.
The reality for ex-servicepeople in this land of the poppy fetish was described in the House of Commons on Wednesday by Jeremy Corbyn. Ex-serviceman David Clapson died alone without any food in his home after being sanctioned by the Job Centre. He died without food in his stomach alone in the dark after his benefit was stopped because he’d missed a meeting at the job centre. As a diabetic his life depended on ensuring that his diet was carefully regulated, that the insulin upon which he depended was kept refrigerated. All the poppy pride in the world won’t put food in your stomach. It won’t provide a decent job or standard of living. It won’t ensure dignity for the living, and it certainly won’t ensure that we end wars.
The tragic tale of David Clapson isn’t an isolated instance. Thousands of former service people are in crisis. Thousands depend on charities which are increasingly forced to supply those basic needs that the state is no longer willing to meet. That same state that’s happy to put on military parades so politicians can bask in reflected glory, covering themselves in pride like a fake tan while they preside over a system which has institutionalised petty cruelty and punishment, which condemns hundreds of thousands, both those who’ve served in the forces and those who have not, to a marginal life of desperation dependent on the whims of assessors who don’t assess compassion or care.
According to a report published a couple of years ago by the homelessness charity Crisis, one in ten of those who are forced to sleep rough in doorways and alleyways are former service people. Britain glorifies its military with parades, with flags, with poppies, but it won’t give former service people what they need in order to maintain a basic level of dignity. They are forced to rely on charity handouts. Once they’ve left the services they’re all too often cast adrift in a benefits system that’s more capricious and cruel than a bullying sergeant and they end up dying, starving and alone in the dark, sacrificed by an uncaring state that claims it always commemorates their sacrifice.
We can commemorate the dead and honour the sacrifice of those who died in order to protect this country that’s becoming ever more cruel, and ever more lacking in care. A country where compassion is a weakness and empathy is a sin. A country which refuses to accept responsibility for the damage that it wreaks and the suffering that it causes as it turns away refugees and demands that they open their mouths so that their teeth can be examined.
The truth is that if the sacrifice of the dead means anything it should mean that we remember that they fought and died in the hope that the world would become a better place, a kinder place, a place where compassion and love are prized above a military parade.
But it’s easy to commemorate the dead, unlike the living they don’t cost money and don’t make demands on your social security system. The dead don’t need houses or food on their tables. They don’t need jobs, they don’t need medical care, they don’t need emotional support. Dignity comes cheap when you’re dead. But best of all you can hang any message you like on the dead because they can no longer speak for themselves. You can take the symbol created by those who fought the war to end all wars and you can use it to recruit new soldiers who can fight and die in new wars. And then you can claim that you’re honouring the sacrifice of those who are no longer with us.
Audio version of this blog post, courtesy of Sarah Mackie @lumi_1984 https://soundcloud.com/occamshaver/wee-ginger-dug-2nd-nov-2016
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