I have never seen such an ahistorical marker of a historical event as Remembrance Day in London. Remembrance Day has never been about intellectual debates. It is a solemn holiday that is marked by macabre displays of poppies and moments of silence. Still though, it is bewildering to be in this city while British elites use the holiday to push a deeply cynical agenda. Rather than reflecting on the horrors of a war that devastated Europe, and destroyed the global order, many of them seem intense on using the centennial as blatant propaganda that glorifies conflict.
This is most apparent in the intense nationalism that has been present in many of the events. For instance, the Tower of London is currently surrounded by an exhibit called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which has featured 888 246 ceramic poppies that have slowly filled the Tower moat. That number was chosen because it is the number of British soldiers that died in the war: at least, this is the spin that the display has been given. I was bewildered by the decision, if only because the United Kingdom did not only command British soldiers during World War I. It called on millions of soldiers from across the British Empire, who are suddenly erased in an artistic display that supposedly gives a voice to every soldier that fought.
The irony, of course, is that although the display pushes out non-UK combatants, it actually uses an artistic device (the poppy) that has become a Remembrance Day staple as a result of the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. McCrae wrote the poem while deployed in France, and importantly, he was Canadian. As a result, he is not seen as having a poppy that is represented in the 888 246 currently floating outside the Tower of London. The poem he wrote has been appropriated into British identity, yet his death in service of the British Empire has been completely pushed out of the narrative. Although the statistic from the Commonwealth Graves Commission is supposedly international, page 45 of the report shows that many colonies are excluded, including Canada, South Africa, and pre-partition India. Thus, the story attached to the memorial is much more narrow, and many soldiers are now only commemorated in niche celebrations like the Sikh commemoration at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Despite the fact that it was a “World” War, the world is absent.
While the decision may seem harmless, it was motivated by a growing attitude that Remembrance Day means specifically remembering how Britain faced down the Kaizer and defended itself from tyranny. The revisionism goes on: suddenly, the soldiers who fought were also doing so out of principle and self-sacrifice, rather than being conscripted in the Military Service Act by 1916 and thrown into muddy trenches before dying while charging against machine guns in No Man’s Land. Propaganda like this is obviously being deployed in order to justify current policy in the War on Terror. The anniversary of the war’s declaration is being used as yet another platform for self-righteous proclamations about freedom and democracy. Politicizing ceremonies isn’t exactly new, but the danger is that these moves completely obfuscate what actually happened.
We cannot lose track of essential facts. The British Empire fought in World War I, not Britain as we know it today. It had no moral halo, and neither did any of its opponents. World War I was the end-result of decades of militarization, and growing tensions, between imperial leaders that were perfectly willing to sacrifice millions of lives for their own feudal regalia. I have frequently heard politicians in London speak emptily about the “honor” that British soldiers exhibited in the trenches. This misses the point completely: there was no honor in the trenches. World War I was absolute hell, and the bloodletting only stopped because of a last minute entry of the United States, and a militant labor movement that was forced to march on Moscow and Berlin in order to stop Europe from turning into a mausoleum. Otherwise, and despite how the German war-front had collapsed, monarchical cousins were more than prepared to devastate the continent until the bitter end.
If we forget that World War I was the first indisputably dishonorable war, that started and continued for absurd reasons, and permanently distorted the European social fabric, then we can’t understand why it was supposed to be “the War to end all Wars.” Remembrance Day is meant to mark the end of an apocalypse that damaged Europe severely enough to lay the foundations for the Holocaust and the rise of Fascism. It was supposed to remind us of the importance of avoiding impulsive and rash behavior because of the realities of what modern warfare can do. Clearly, the lesson was lost, and the fact that the War on Terror extolls the virtue of “flexing muscles” and bombing large portions of the planet has made this even more clear. It is still worth asking the obvious question though. If we have become so blind to history that we refuse to commemorate reality on Remembrance Day, then what exactly is stopping 1914 from ever happening again?
Photograph courtesy of Anders. Published under a Creative Commons License.