Joe Glenton: The way we remember war is political and always has been

Those critical of conflicts past and present have always come up against a military establishment that tries to glorify war

Tomb of the unknown warrior, Westminster Abbey.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey.

The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine was a veteran of the First World War and a man of lamentable politics, but he was on the button when he wrote of war and soldiers that “…when the princes of this world start loving you it means they are going to grind you up into battle sausage”.

In Britain, some degree of soldier worship today prevails and each year it peaks around this time. A century of propaganda has furnished what the war resister and soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon termed a “smug-faced crowd with kindling eye”, which stands ever ready to cheer as soldier lads march by. A small but potent “soldiers as heroes” cult has emerged led by an establishment with barely a veteran in its ranks. This waffling herd orbits around the idea of the soldier as dutiful, heroic and silent.

In my view, the official version of remembrance is much less about honouring soldiers than it is about obscuring them with an avalanche of wreaths. The truth will set no Tory hearts ablaze; though a parallel truth is that jingoism is the workaday currency of all the main parties today.

The politics of remembrance have always been contested, not least by soldiers themselves. I will contest them again here; I do not do so lightly, but rather out of a sense of duty to the war dead, one or two of whom I knew.

In his poem Tommy Atkins, which I urge you to read this week, Rudyard Kipling gives voice to the maltreated British soldier. “Tommy ain’t no bleeding fool…” the soldiers lament goes “…you bet that Tommy sees”. The real Tommy does see and he quite often acts when he is besmirched.

There will be no mention in this year’s ceremonies of the disgruntled veterans who returned from war in 1918 not to a land ‘fit for heroes’ but to grinding poverty. Or that they disrupted the remembrance ceremonies of the twenties in protest at the state of things.

The real legacy of veterans of the Second World War, and its current destruction, will of course remain unspeakable. The men and women who did the work of fighting fascism to some extent brought home their fight against reaction and unchecked power. Galvanised by their experiences in the fight against Hitler, newly confident of their own collective power and stirred by the memory of inter-war economic depression, they were central in the subsequent foundation of the welfare state and the NHS.

It is my firm view that the last people on God’s green earth fit to squawk about “respecting the troops” or the importance of wearing a poppy are politicians committed to cutting apart and selling off those veterans gift to us, their descendants.

On the subject of the poppy itself, I was only recently involved in a conversation on the topic between several generations of ex-servicemen; “heroes” if you like, though for many of us the term has been so overused in recent years that it has been emptied of any value or meaning.

Some of us wear the white poppy and others prefer red. Some of us pin on one of each colour and some, like me, wear neither. Everybody present visibly flinched at the mention of poppies prettified with diamantes and reduced to a fashion accessory. These were held to be the height of disrespect.

For some of the younger veterans present, who had served in the dirty wars of the post 9/11 era, the red poppy has become the badge of the gutter jingoist and of those suspiciously long-range patriots who frequent Westminster.

For the older men amongst us, who had served in the Second World War, decolonization and during national service – including men whose fathers had been gassed in the trenches – the red poppy is not a symbol of patriotism or unquestioning glorification, but rather recalls an era of mass public grief which was both insubordinate and dissenting.

The poppy was ours, they sternly claimed. At its inception it belonged not to the architects of wars but to the people whose son, dads and brothers were maimed and slaughtered in them.

In both groups of veterans there was considerable unease with regards the current climate. This is not remembrance in its original sense, the consensus ran, but a sort of rank pseudo-patriotism stirred up for political ends. Tommy sees, you see.

The veterans with whom I raised the topic were in broad agreement that a mythical interpretation of the First World War is being used to validate the wars of today and to glorify the military which fights them as somehow collectively heroic.

My own great-grandfather was decorated for courage at the River Piave on the Italian Front and very close by a young man named Hemingway was serving as an ambulance driver. Ernest Hemingway would prove to be no stranger to a turn of phrase and what he wrote of that war seems to me to be true of all the others, “The things that were glorious…” he said “…had no glory”. As I consider the veteran’s concerned exchanges, this seems to capture what we are trying to say very well.

War is inglorious and should be presented as such. Even if a given war could be just in theory, its fundamental aim is still to pound the human spirit until it submits or dies. War is thus necessarily criminal in its conduct whether or not its ultimate aims are true and right. The act of remembrance, as it pertains to those killed in wars, then should, in my view, reflect this reality of war; I believe Remembrance in Britain no longer does this.

Joe Glenton is a former British soldier who fought in Afghanistan. He refused to serve a second tour on moral grounds, and was jailed for five months for going Absent without leave. He blogs here and is author of ‘Soldier Box: Why I won’t return to the war on terror’. Joe and Veterans for Peace will doing an alternate wreath laying ceremony on Sunday

Read more: ‘Regardless of personal politics it is our duty to remember those who fought’, writes Ned Donovan.

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