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The White Poppy symbolises the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts and embodies values that reject killing fellow human beings for whatever reason. Our work, primarily educational, draws attention to many of our social values and habits which make continuing violence a likely outcome.
From economic reliance on arms sales (Britain is the world's second largest arms exporter) to maintaining manifestly useless nuclear weapons Britain contributes significantly to international instability. The outcome of the recent military adventures highlights their ineffectiveness and grim consequences.
Now nearly 100 years after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ we still have a long way to go to put an end to a social institution, which in even in the last decade contributed to the killing of millions.
What should we remember?
Is that how you see it?..read on
Remembrance 2014, the first Remembrance Day of the WW1 centenary was unsurprisingly steeped in WW1 references. The popular so called sea of poppies at the Tower of London could also be called a blood red tide of poppies . The Tower originally built to suppress a conquered population, and home to many other cruelties since, graphically symbolised the source of the blood letting. It is from military installations that the forces that cause blood to flow emanate. The cascade of red poppies from the orifices of the battlement wall is a deeply symbolic (albeit probably unintended) illustration of this. Despite the popularity of the display it had to be dismantled just after Remembrance Day as several hundred arms manufacturers and sundry military and political attendants were having their annual dinner in the Tower.
Vladimir Putin's mouthpiece the "Autonomous Nonprofit Organization" RT (formally Russia Today television channel) made great play of this quoting CAAT's press release: "It is disturbing that just weeks later it (the Tower of London)can play host to the very arms companies, which profit from perpetuating war and conflict today. It is crassly insensitive and in extremely bad taste that this historic monument would do this so soon after providing such a high-profile focal point for Remembrance Day.” Of course it suits the Russian propaganda machine to smear one of the world's most lucrative industries but what of CAAT's statement? We may be at one in its criticism of the arms trade (indeed the PPU was one of its founding organisations) but what about the whole red poppy industry and its role in reinforcing support and acceptance of the military. The congruence of 888,000 red poppies and a hundred arms manufacturers is not so strange. The arms manufacturers and the British Legion are, after all, a partnership.
Nostalgia and propaganda apart, the dominant narrative during remembrance and much of the WW1 centenary so far has been that the war was terrible but men heroically gave their all for freedom and their king and country, it was sad that so many were killed and injured and it must never happen again. Those too are the messages carefully wrapped in cellophane and left with wreaths of red poppies in cemeteries across France and Belgium by British school children, many on state paid visits accompanied by a serving soldier in uniform.
Of course the war was terrible and very sad for many and surely it should not happen again but what are these much trumpeted lessons that have been learned? And why do wars keep ‘happening’? What does this narrative tell us and the younger generation that the government and the British Legion are so anxious to reach? The causes of the war, when mentioned, are usually placed at a distance far removed from mere human intervention. Causes of any particular war may be complex but some core matters can be glimpsed everywhere. For example, do a media search for anything vaguely related to Remembrance during the remembrance period, such as the Guardian website and you will invariably get a big top of the page banner added for the army or the reserves. Remembrance Day and Armistice Day before have alway been a good time for military recruitment.
Remembrance Day, unless contained within it is a view of a better future, will remain no more than annual theatre for the vast majority, a fundraising and recruiting opportunity for others. The British Legion calls itself the ‘custodian’ of remembrance; if this means remembering the human cost of Britain’s wars well and good but when this morphs into a justification of war then we should seriously question its place in public life. The title of the Legion’s Learning Pack 2014/15 is: For Them, For Now, For Ever. The title together with the cover picture helps us to decode the meaning. From ‘them’ the WW1 casualties to ‘for ever’ the modern day soldiers silhouetted under a hot desert sun reveal the Legion’s view not only of the past (a necessary war) but future (there will always be wars). Is this fatalistic vision of a future of endless wars and a miserable view of human inability to solve problems nonviolently how we see ourselves? Is this the lesson we want to impart to our children? Intractable as some conflicts may seem they are not beyond our ability to handle them without mass murder or drone assassinations. These fat slick Legion packs with DVDs are sent to all British schools free of charge as ‘part of the Legion's commitment to promoting Remembrance to younger people’. The pack like much of the Legion’s material has embedded within it a fatalistic view of a future in which war will always have a place.
Victory Balls that Dick Sheppard found so offensive took place on Armistice Day in the early 1920s were after some protest moved to another day. Dick Sheppard arranged an alternative event which later became the Legion’s Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall. This annual show of military prowess with sing songs has for years been supported by BAE Systems. BAE Systems is the UK's biggest arms company and has been a long-standing, active Legion supporter, though these days it keeps a low profile. Last year they sponsored the annual Poppy Ball, a white tie dinner. Some offices and arms factories also hosted their own local events.