THREE weeks to go to Remembrance Sunday, but red poppies are already visible, sported by their enthusiasts who appear on television. The first red poppies, back in 1921, were sold only on Armistice Day. Perhaps we should write letters to The Times on spotting the first red poppy of the year! Today the red poppy, drained of its original significance, has in effect become the corporate logo of the Royal British Legion.
This year’s RBL Appeal slogan is ‘Wherever we’re needed, you’ll find us.’ Which is plainly not true. If it were, the RBL would need no new three-year plan to increase provision of care and the number of its ‘beneficiaries receiving advice or practical help’. ‘To fund these exciting developments,’ says the fundraising director, ‘the Poppy Appeal will have to go from strength to strength’. In 1945 there was clearly a significant need to help ex-military men and women but today? Sure, soldiers and their families who have been seriously affected as a result of Britain’s recent wars can benefit from the extra support the RBL offers. But isn’t it crass in this context to call for fundraising ‘to go from strength to strength’?
War casts a long, dark shadow over people’s lives. For example, more British veterans of the Falklands War have committed suicide than were killed in the fighting. (Lest we forget: many more young Argentinian conscripts were sent to the bottom of the sea by British submariners.) Many of today’s veterans end up sleeping rough on the streets of our major cities. No other occupational category has such a grim and lasting effect on its former employees. Regrettably, there is work for organisations like the RBL to do but surely no-one should want fundraising ‘from strength to strength’ to be necessary.
Showman Charles and faithful assistant Camilla doing
Royal duty and unveiling yet another war memorial
However, old organisations have to reinvent themselves in order to survive. So do those whose central function has dramatically diminished or disappeared.
‘Sixty years after the end of World War II,’ says the RBL’s press release, ‘the Churches and the Royal British Legion have prepared a new service for today's generation as it picks up the torch of remembrance - and brings to it images of more recent conflicts and a greater awareness of new terrors and dangers.’ Here laid bare is the central problem that members of the PPU and pacifists before them have always had with the Armistice/Remembrance concept. The poppy appeal and its driving force, Remembrance Sunday, though intimately tied to war, are devoid of any critique of war even an illegal war and thus strongly support a system which makes war seem acceptable, even inevitable.
You might expect that an organisation so well acquainted with some of war’s grim effects would be just a touch critical of such murderous activity. But no, it relies on war and promotes martial values to raise funds. ‘By working with the Legion you can increase awareness for your company and its products or services. Many organisations, including the press, have close connections with the Legion which makes it possible to secure visibility which would not have been achievable by other means.’ ‘Consumer perception of a company or product is enhanced if it is seen to be working with a reputable and worthy charitable organisation. By partnering with the Legion you can enhance the way consumers view your organisation.’ ‘Commercial partners benefit from both the use of the Poppy brand and access to the Legion's membership database of over 600,000 people. We can help raise sales for your business by helping you stand out from your competitors.‘
At budget time government departments argue for their share of taxpayers’ money. Doctors and hospital administrators have been accused of ‘shroud waving’ as they warn that people will die unless they get sufficient funds to prevent it. One could think of several similarly tasteless descriptions for appeals based on the deaths and injury of millions without a word of criticism of the social system that sanctioned such butchery. It is not only the RBL that tries to profit from the dead. Eurostar’s brochure, for example, draws attention to the pleasant graveyards in Belgium and France that people can make a quick visit to, and Eurostar too is partnering with the RBL to enhance the approving way consumers view them both.
Even more depressing are those ever-increasing school trips to war cemeteries. Two teachers I spoke to at Thiepval were frank about the reasons for the trip: the experience helps pupils get better marks in their exams. Nothing wrong with that, but…. Drive round the cemeteries and listen to what the students are being told: more often than not you will hear indoctrination at its most subtle. ‘War is terrible, and it’s sad that all these young men had to die but…’. The fact that many of those young men were forced into killing others like themselves is rarely mentioned. ‘Reunited in heaven’ says the message attached to standard RBL red poppy wreaths placed in one British and one German cemetery by a Suffolk school. The RBL’s new and ‘exciting developments’ include expansion of ‘work with the nation's schools, enabling more students to visit battle fields and war cemeteries here and abroad’.
According to the Legion’s web site, ‘On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the First World War ended. Civilians wanted to remember the people who had given their lives for peace and freedom’. This is a travesty of what that first Armistice Day was about: grief, mourning, and ‘never again’. But then as now, instead of rage at a socio-political system that brought about war, instead of forceful insistence that the world be run differently, the deaths of so many British soldiers were turned into glorious sacrifice. Certainly this helped the bereaved, by supplying meaning (albeit a false meaning) to the death of the men they loved. It also helped the government, by providing a satisfactory outcome to a war without purpose, which it would not now need to justify.
And so on Remembrance Sunday, to the accompaniment of martial music, the church and state will perform its annual ritual, its service now revised and encouraging ‘today's generation’ to ‘pick up the torch of remembrance’ and to contemplate ‘images of more recent conflicts and a greater awareness of new terrors and dangers’. But where is greater awareness that these terrors and dangers could be avoided?