More thoughts on Remembrance: a response to comments

Last Friday I published a letter explaining why I declined an invitation to participate in the University of London Remembrance ceremony. That letter has met with controversy. This statement is an attempt to further explain my position and respond to some of the accusations made against me.

Excuse the length of this post, however I feel there is a lot to say.

The response

My letter was an attempt not only to explain my position, but to start a rational discussion about Remembrance Day and the linked issues of war and militarism. I have received many messages of support, but also comments that are aggressive and hostile – and I’m sorry to say that most of that criticism has not been very rational. It has even included physical threats.

My public letter was not an attempt to “use” the services for my own political ends. I want to be honest with my members about my feelings on the subject, which I feel they deserve.

Was I duty-bound to take part in the ceremony?

It has been claimed that, as a representative of University of London students, I was duty bound to attend the Remembrance service on their behalf.

ULU has no policy on these questions. At no point have I tried to claim my view is an official, collective ULU position or that a majority of ULU members agree with it. (This is why I did not attempt to prevent a ULU staff member attending the Remembrance service.) In contrast my critics, citing a nebulous “student opinion” or just assuming it exists, assume their view represents the majority of or even all students. The reality is that we don’t know what most University of London students think about this issue.

What we do know is:

1. That ULU has various positions opposing war and militarism;

2. That many ULU unions and students have been active in campaigns such as Stop the War, against the arms trade and so on;

3. I was elected ULU Vice President on a clear, honest political platform, as a socialist whose political positions include opposition to militarism.

I repeat: I have never claimed, and do not claim now, that my position on Remembrance is the official ULU position. My critics should be honest and stop pretending theirs is.

As ULU VP (and, until last week, as Acting ULU President) I am asked to do many things – attend university and students’ union meetings, run and support campaigns, help clubs, societies and sports teams, supporting students in their activities, fighting for students’ rights, and much more. When there is a ULU policy I disagree with (for instance, I disagree with its support, agreed last year, for an academic boycott of Israel), I have to consider how to deal with that, violating neither my principles nor my duties as the officer of a collective, democratic organisation. That does not arise here. Attending Remembrance services is neither in my job description nor in ULU policy.

Lastly, some have assumed that the event I advertised in the preface to my letter is an official ULU event. It is not. I am a member of the socialist organisation Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). The meeting is an AWL event, held at ULU as many meetings of all sorts are, but organised by me in a personal (or rather non-ULU) capacity and run by the AWL.

Is Remembrance non-political?

A common theme in criticism of my letter is the idea that Remembrance is “non-political”, an event in which people should put politics aside to remember and honour the dead. I do not accept this idea, and I do not believe Remembrance is not political.

If Remembrance was really non-political, that would be a problem, because the question of why wars happen, and who suffers in and who benefits from them, is a political question and needs to be dealt with politically. And in reality, war is highly political. Its underlying assumption is that the people who died in Britain’s wars died for a good cause. In fact, the opposite is true. Britain has been for a long time an imperialist power, a world-wide bully that throws its military weight around in the service of the rich and powerful who runs things here at home. That was true in 1914 and it is true today. I believe that both rank-and-file British soldiers who die in war and those they kill are victims of this system.

The changing character of veteran’s organisations over the last 50 – 100 years also demonstrates their changing political motives and intentions. As I mentioned in my original letter, the first veteran’s organisations had a history of support for wounded servicemen. They campaigned to better the lives of predominately working class men and women who had returned from war to find nothing except poverty. This changed. There were successful moves to replace these bodies by monarchical and armed forces leaders. They took on a more overt political stance. This led to a change in the expressed ideas, values and direction of these groups to the one’s we see today (which I will into more detail below).

Some have said that they do not agree with the aims and system of Britain’s wars, but that the remembrance service is an occasion to individually mourn the dead. This is true, and I understand and respect this, as I personally pay respect to the millions killed in war. The death of millions is extremely sad, and the departed are worthy of mourning. However this sincerity is not shared by the official remembrance service proceedings. Behind the facade of concern and mourning the dominant account in the lead up to, and Remembrance Day itself – is soaked in militarism and the monarchy. Military parades, royal pageants and religious ceremonies have become the only way to commemorate the deceased. This is a hijacking of the commemoration of millions that died. It allows us to actually forget that war is a highly political act carried out for highly political aims, not usually in the interests of those who suffer most from its consequences. A former SAS soldier, Ben Griffin, expressed similar sentiments , saying that remebrance is used to “stifle criticism” and that remembrance has turned into a “month-long drum roll of support for current wars….which “trivialise, normalise and sanitise war”. Today’s remembrance service instrumentalises the deaths to mark war as a great heroic conquest, and Britain’s ongoing wars as worthwhile.  For me, the parade of warmongering politicians in their Sunday best bowing their heads in prayer and wearing their poppies with pride last weekend should be enough to politicise anyone. The point is that although one may privately set aside these matters (which is good), the overriding narrative of remembrance cannot be ignored.

It is also duplicitous to claim that the official service is concerned about peace and freedom given Britain’s actual role in world politics. One of the official sponsors of Remembrance day is the arms company BAE Systems! David Cameron laid a wreath at the cenotaph when he had just returned from a tour of the Middle East to promote the sale of weapons to various repressive regimes, and Blair wears the poppy while sending thousands and thousands to their death in other wars. And only recently, the President of the Royal British Legion, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, resigned from his post after claims he made to journalists that he could help the military and arms industry get access to politicians and ministers to further their business interests, became public knowledge.

This is nothing new! British military expenses grew and grew in the lead up to WW1, from £32 million in 1887 to £44.1 million in 1898/9 and over £77 million by 1913/14. It was quite clear, as the President of the British Legion and this government have shown, that an alliance between governments advocating war and war production and business creates political necessities and realities.

Additionally, Remembrance Day is as an opportunity for a private act of conscience; this private act of reflection should not and cannot be imposed on others, as some are suggesting. It is disappointing that supporters of an event to remember wars that supposedly fought to defend “our freedoms” do not extend this to the freedom to disagree with them and to act on one’s conscience.

**

When I was in primary school I would wear the poppy. I had it attached on my lapel because it was deemed ‘The Thing To Do’, yet with little explanation of why. Recent research has found that a quarter of young children don’t know what Remembrance Day is about. Whilst different today, historically, military service, together with the primary school, was perhaps the most influential means at the disposal of the state for inculcating suitable civic behaviour and, for turning the resident of a city into the (patriotic) citizen of a nation. Governments in the lead up to WW1 (as in pretty much every other war) recognised they had to think deeply about how they would mobilise public opinion in support of war. The state’s instruments were used – the media, the education system. Governments had to claim that foreigners were responsible for undermining national values, that national traditions were at stake – Russian barbarism against German culture, French and British democracy against German absolutism. Jingoism spread across the world, with the popular, “Every job – get a Frog; every hit – get a Brit; every slap – get  a Jap”  on the lips of many Germans.

David Cameron, in a period of austerity and deepening ill feeling towards his government, is keen to infuse a similar national feeling. He has recently said that there should be greater investment in remembering the wars of the past. £50m has been found to fund a four-year programme of events and visits to the trenches from every school. Cameron wants to remember that “the lessons learned live with us for ever”; the lessons and stories have been presented as a fait accompli, with no discussion or debate about what they are. It is very likely that the history given will be limited. It will fail to mention that in WW1 Belgium was no innocent player: 10 million Congolese died as a result of forced labour and mass murder by their army. It will fail to mention that Germany was guilty of the genocide against Herero and Nama peoples in former Namibia. It will fail mention the famine and desperate poverty imposed by the British Empire in India, and the enforced concentration camps in South Africa. And it will fail to mention that war changed the world in dramatic ways with which we still live today. The teachings Cameron talks of, and the narrative on show at official remembrance services do not promote a critical engagement with the issues raised by war, or even remotely try to deal with its lessons. This is a re-writing of history that should be challenged.

There is a linked point. The glorification of war through Remembrance Day includes wars fought to defend British colonial interests, and to perpetuate colonial oppression. I therefore do not think that it appropriate for ULU, as a representative body, to attend a ceremony in which many of the ancestors of our international students were citizens of these nations.

***

The claim to be “supporting our troops”, when rank-and-file soldiers are treated so badly by the military command and the establishment, both when they are abroad fighting and back at home, is rank hypocrisy. The painter and war veteran, Otto Dix, was haunted by the brutality of mechanised warfare long after the guns fell silent in 1918/1919. His paintings describe the effacement of war; mutilated bodies strewn across the trenches, the dead distorted by decomposition. Dix tells the story of the young who, even though they may have escaped it shells, were destroyed by war. He paints veterans on their return, disfigured, toiling in poverty and ignored by the government that enlisted them, whilst war profiteers are privileged by abundance. Otto Dix’s poignant ‘Match Seller’ exemplifies this: it shows a blind ex – soldier that sells matches on the street, passers-by paying no attention to his plight.

Eric Bogle, the American artist, touches on this subject matter in a song entitled ‘William McBride, No Man’s Land’; it is a series of questions to the soldier, McBride. It is a powerful indictment of the supposed glorious nature of war:

And I can’t help but wonder now Willie McBride

Do all those who lie here know why they died?

Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?

You really believed that this war would end war?

But the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame –

The killing and dying – it was all done in vain.

For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again

And again, and again, and again, and again.

It is no secret that the trauma and horrors of warfare meant that most conscripts came out hating war – because of its naked brutality and because of their subsequent mistreatment. As Harry Patch, Britain’s last surviving veteran of World War One, who died in 2009, said:

Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?”

For these reasons, the official leaders of the remembrance services – the royal family, the state and army – those that take us to war again and again, are absolute hypocrites in their engagement with remembrance services.

My future at ULU

 There have been calls for my resignation from ULU. I will not be resigning.

Some are building a campaign of ‘no confidence’ in my post. I believe this does no good for London students at all. I have broken no rules, there was no policy on the issue, it was not part of my job description and it was an act of conscience on my part. I sought to candidly inform my members of why I declined to lay the wreath at the service, and begin a discussion on the topic.

I say to those that disagree with my decision not to lay a wreath: we should have a rational, public discussion on how best to remember the dead.

A ‘no confidence’ campaign will escalate into nasty slurs and unfounded discussion, as we have already seen, and it is not positive for the future of the University of London Union or London students’ interests.

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