Poppy Day after the Iraq War

Mostly we do forget

by Gwydion M. Williams

“You can put your poppy in the drawer for another year”. That was a comment I heard after this year’s celebration. Not from a pair of ‘hoodies’ or bearded radicals, but from the sort of people you’d expect to be solid supporters of a patriotic cause.

But is it really patriotic to ask young British soldiers go out and die for a bunch of foreigners who don’t even like us?

Poppy Day used to have a popular element. That has declined markedly since the invasion of Iraq. Nowadays it is all top-down. Everyone on BBC Television wears their poppy: we assume that they have been pressurised into it. Government and Opposition in Britain have united with the Liberal-Democrats to drum up enthusiasm for our military tradition – and it hasn’t worked.

People know now that they were lied to about Iraq. Since the 1920s, it has never been more than a segment of British society that had any enthusiasm for war. That segment make the biggest global impact, and resistance is mostly passive, often selfish. But the social mainstream remains pretty much indifferent to war.

At my local shopping centre I saw some bored-looking soldiers at a recruiting desk, ignored by everyone. Elsewhere in a city that’s mostly white-English, I saw exactly one non-official flag – you get dozens when it’s a major football tournament. To celebrate Remembrance, they got a load of schoolkids who’d probably be just as ready to celebrate Joseph Stalin’s birthday if it was an officially-approved break from school.

The public are apathetic. There were lots protested ahead of the Iraq War, at least a million and maybe two million. Millions more went along rather passively, for various reasons. One fellow whom I used to work with figured the invasion would do no good for the Iraqis but would mean cheaper petrol. Petrol went up and that fellow lost his job, though probably for other reasons. Petrol has come down a bit now that a recession looms, but remains very expensive.

Back in the 1960s, it was widely accepted that World War One was a big mistake. At that time, West Germans were vital Cold War allies and had to be conciliated. But it was also true: it was not Germany’s fault. Serbia and Austria-Hungary both decided that their rivalry over Bosnia was important enough to risk a World War. The other countries were pulled in, but Britain chose to join in. Britain never said that invading Belgium would mean war until after the invasion. This makes no sense unless a faction within the government was seeking to rush the nation into war on what sounded like a moral issue. And indeed, we now know that a faction within the government had been secretly making deals with France to join in a war that had been made likely by France’s unprincipled alliance with Tsarist Russia. The French Republic and Tsarist Russia stood at opposite extremes of European politics: the only point they had in common was fear of Germany. Not that Germany looked likely to attack anyone: the confusion after Japan defeated Russia in 1904-5 would have been the perfect moment had Germany really wanted to rule the world, but Germany showed no such wish. Germany was winning the peace, pulling ahead of Britain and the other powers in peaceful trade and industry. Another 20 years of peace and trade might have produced a Germany too strong for any alliance of foes to dare attack.

But the real crime was not starting a war in 1914. The crime was failing to call it off in 1915, when it became obvious there could be no easy victory. That was wholly the fault of Britain, which rejected German suggestions to call the war a stalemate and return to the 1914 status quo. The British Empire and its ruling class were losing ground in a changing world, and hoped a war might change this..

The new era created by the 1914 War has been called the ‘Age of Extremes’, and all sorts of other nasty names. I can’t agree with this. I’d prefer to say that the 20th century was the Century of Painful Liberation. It is quite predictable that the process is deeply resented by those who used to dominate the now-liberated nations and classes. But one would expect that the liberated would be celebrating, and outside of Europe maybe they do. Over here it is the complaints that dominate:

“Seen against the backdrop of what followed, the period 1900-14 was a golden evening of civilisation: a time of social stability, peaceful international relations, political reform and economic integration, leavened by startling technological and cultural progress.”[A]

Really? Supposing some visitor from another world had studied us in 1914, and then again in 2004. They’d notice that Ireland, India and many other parts of what was then the British Empire were now Republics. That in Middle Europe, the various multi-ethnic empires were now part of an extended European Community – they might not guess how much pain there had been in between. Looking at East Asia, they’d also suppose that Japan had kept the same multi-party system under an Emperor that they had had in 1914, after voluntarily modernising themselves when the USA forced them out of isolation. China, having been a disorderly Republic and very poor, had become socialist and rich. All Africa is ruled by its majority inhabitants, with the colonies of Kenya, Rhodesia and South Africa swallowed up, though whites are still there and richer than most of the blacks.

Our visitor in 2004 would also notice changes in the USA, once segregated and white-dominated. They would have seen a black man as Secretary of State, with a black woman due to succeed and not first woman to hold the job. They would also note gigantic changes in US and European social habits. Homosexuality had become legal and fairly open. Smoking tobacco is being criminalised. Women are theoretically equal in the West, and make continuous progress towards being actually equal. This includes being open and equal about having lovers and it is now normal for couples in Britain to live together before marrying. Virgin brides are almost unknown and most men who marry are not often the first for their intended bride. Work had become very irregular and indisciplined by standards of 1914. A lot more in offices and a lot less in factories, but the suit had become a dwindling habit and some people don’t bother with tidiness at all. Domestic servants have almost totally vanished and a once-significant aristocracy barely seems to count. And most of us have no intention of getting involved in any foreign war.

I remember back in the 1960s how my father noted when Britain achieved the longest period of peace we’d had since the Boer War. The British government then had the sense to stay out of US foolishness, most notably the Vietnam War, to which Britain contributed not a single soldier to the bunch of allies the US induced to join it. That was down to Harold Macmillan, from the old ruling class and wise enough to see through US folly. Blair was different and Brown seems no better, but they have failed to bring the British people with them.


[A] http://www.economist.com/books/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12551542


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2008, using the pen-name Walter Cobb.

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