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Between the wars

11/12/2013

White poppy

Away from the television cameras and the presenters dutifully wearing their red poppies. What will the viewers think if they don’t? Away from the false solemnity of members of the royal family. Away from the political leaders and military top brass who will be back in their offices tomorrow preparing for the next war, cranking up the military machine and spending billions on weapons in times of austerity. Away from the Royal British Legion and their search for the soldiers of the future. Away from the lazy patriotism and perpetual lionising of “our brave” servicemen and women. Away from the war memorials that salute the “glorious dead”. There was nothing glorious about the human carnage of the First World War. Away from the ubiquitous Help for Heroes. Away from the Military Wives and the Poppy Girls. Away from military this and military that. Away from football clubs who flaunt the red poppy and yet turn a blind eye, with a few honourable exceptions, to local communities being hammered by cuts to spending on health, education and welfare. It’s “too political” apparently. Away from all this and barely a couple of miles from the pomp and ceremony of Whitehall the Peace Pledge Union held its annual Remembrance Sunday event in Tavistock Square in central London.

The Peace Pledge Union has campaigned for a warless world for seventy nine years and is the oldest non-sectarian pacifist organisation in Britain. Their white poppy commemorates all the lives lost in war and in preparations for war not simply those of the military or, more particularly, the British military. In addition to the ten million soldiers who were slaughtered in the First World War, in excess of one million civilians also lost their lives. In modern wars the proportion of non-combatant casualties is staggeringly high; over ninety per cent of those killed are civilians. The PPU’s white poppy, once described by Thatcher as something of “deep distaste”, acknowledges that a life is a life and that all victims of war, irrespective of which side of a national border they were born on, are worth remembering.

Remembrance Sunday 10-11-13 2

The white poppy has a longer history than many realise having first been worn in the 1930s following a disagreement between the British Legion and the No More War Movement over the message that should be conveyed by the red poppy. The First World War was supposed to be “the war to end all wars” and the No More War Movement believed that the poppy should express an anti-war message. The Legion disagreed and opted instead to put the words “Haig Fund” on the black button in the centre of the poppy. The Haig Fund was a charity established by a wartime Field Marshal to assist ex-servicemen. And so the white poppy as an alternative symbol of peace and remembrance for all the victims of war was born.

There was a popular wave of opinion against war in the 1930s and over eighty thousand white poppies were sold in 1938. A year earlier, the PPU held a week-long summer conference at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire where nearly three hundred delegates debated how best to avert the looming threat of war.

In contrast to these peaceful sentiments the British Legion, even today, are reluctant to criticise any governments for sending thousands of young men and women to war and prefer to glorify them as heroes and view war as part of “normal” society. The message that those who wear the controversial red poppy are somehow standing “shoulder to shoulder with those who serve” is one that I find particularly discomforting.

Last week a British Marine Sergeant was found guilty of murdering an Afghan prisoner. It should be possible for us all to appreciate that members of the armed forces are not heroes but ordinary human beings doing their jobs in often unimaginably horrific circumstances. Are there not parallels between a soldier deeply traumatised by witnessing mates and colleagues killed by Afghan fighters and, as a result, driven to extreme action, and members of the Taliban radicalised by seeing innocent civilians killed by drone strikes. Morally, what is the difference?

Remembrance Sunday 10-11-13

Those gathered at the PPU’s Remembrance Sunday event heard from two speakers. First up, Paul Gilroy, a writer and professor at King’s College in London spoke eloquently about how peace must not be seen simply as the absence of war but as a movement against war. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Peace Pledge Union is that war and war preparations should not be seen as an inevitable part of normal life. We can all, as individuals, renounce war and work proactively for peace.

Jane Grant of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom talked about the brave women such as Millicent Fawcett who not only campaigned for universal suffrage but also to stop hostilities in the First World War, staging mass meetings in London and an international conference in The Hague. A reminder too, that women formed the majority of the early peace movement.

The event concluded with the laying of a wreath of white poppies in front of the Conscientious Objectors’ Memorial and a minute’s silence to remember all the lives lost in war and war preparations around the globe. The centre of the wreath read as follows;

“For all those who have died or are dying in wars, who have died or are dying because resources that could have fed or housed them have been wasted on war and preparations for war, who will die until we learn to live in peace. When shall we ever learn?”

Tavistock Square is the nearest thing that London has to a peace garden or memorial. The lump of volcanic rock that represents the Conscientious Objectors’ Memorial sits in the shade of a cherry tree planted to remember the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s only a short trip across London from Whitehall to Tavistock Square but morally and intellectually it feels like a million miles as, each year, Remembrance Sunday becomes more militaristic. Next year will mark the centenary of the start of the First World War and it’s more important than ever that there is a powerful voice that challenges the belief that organised killing of our fellow human beings is part and parcel of a “normal” society. Otherwise, the answer to the question in the final sentence of the inscription on the wreath will, sadly, be “not yet”.

There’s more about the Peace Pledge Union and their work here;

http://www.ppu.org.uk/

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