I was always the belligerent child at school who spent far too long on my soapbox (little has changed), and every year I’d have the same argument about the poppy appeal. Yesterday I came across an excellent piece from Wales Online written ahead of Remembrance Day in 2010, where ex-SAS soldier Ben Griffin publicly, and excellently, criticised the Poppy Appeal as a political tool.
Griffin was the first SAS soldier to refuse to go into combat on political grounds, and left the army in 2005. He questions the Royal British Legion’s use of celebrities (such as The Saturdays, seen above), and reminds us there’s more to war than joyful frolicking in poppy-shaped confetti: “The RBL would say they are modernising and appealing to a younger generation. I disagree. I think that their stunts trivialise, normalise and sanitise war.”
Griffin also points out that the language of the campaign, urging us to remember our “heroes” and “support our troops” attempts to depoliticise and mystify not just the Poppy Appeal but war itself:
“The use of the word ‘hero’ glorifies war and glosses over the ugly reality. War is nothing like a John Wayne movie. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle, there is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about the deaths of countless civilians. Calling our soldiers heroes is an attempt to stifle criticism of the wars we are fighting in. It leads us to that most subtle piece of propaganda: You might not support the war but you must support our heroes, ergo you support the war.” (Emphasis mine)
Griffin of course is not alone in his critique of war from a veteran’s perspective, and Harry Patch’s famous quote has been given a thorough airing on the social network feeds of those with anti-war persuasions.
But what is it “our heroes” are actually fighting for? The noble cause of “freedom” is a slippery category, which everyone can claim as their own, as shown by the bizarre cognitive dissonance that allows the EDL to throw Nazi salutes…
…whilst also “honouring” the fallen troops of WWII on Remembrance Day. For this and many other reasons, I share Griffin’s unease at the subtle ideology exercised by the all-pervasive poppy, claimed by the RBL to be “neutral” but in reality anything but. Happily, the use and misuse of political ideals such as humanitarianism, freedom, democracy, and female emancipation to justify imperialist military interventions has been written about by a selection of my current favourite writers.
In his introduction to Violence (read it, it’s excellent), Slavoj Žižek critiques the sense of “humanitarian urgency” so often used as window dressing to justify war. After all, if we’re fighting a war for human rights, freedom, democracy and all those great things, how can you be anti-war? How could you be anti-democracy, anti-freedom? Even Bush and Blair supported “democracy” after all.
Žižek has written elsewhere on the depoliticisation of “human rights” as “the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political purposes“, and this has been explored brilliantly in Didier Fassin’s Humanitarian Reason and Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Ardent to Gaza (which I have still to read with the dedication it deserves, despite my excitable anticipation of its publication almost a year ago).
Nina Power, in One Dimensional Woman, draws attention to the increasing co-option of feminism to support military interventions, particularly with regard to recent conflicts in the Middle East. The Taliban’s abhorrent treatment of women was cited over and over again as the compelling reason why we have to go to war with Afghanistan, and we have to go NOW. How can you oppose war with Afghanistan, if peace with Afghanistan means supporting a brutal regime that throws acid in the faces of would-be school girls? Power points out, quite rightly, that the war made it even more dangerous to be an Afghan feminist, lest you be labelled an agent of the occupying forces. Not to mention the absurdity of the political right suddenly adopting women’s rights as their battle cry and cause célèbre, whilst simultaneously attacking women at home.
There’s many other compelling arguments against the Poppy Appeal and what it represents – the seemingly apolitical use of kitsch nationalism to dampen any critical reflection or dissent (as discussed with reference to the Jubilee and the use of nationalist rhetoric amongst some on the left by Wail Qasim); the absurdity of “remembering” the war, whilst we continue with multiple military campaigns and occupations around the world; the hypocrisy of a government that can afford to send soldiers to war, but leaves their welfare up to charity upon their return. All things considered, I still won’t be buying a poppy this year.
- I’m really looking forward to Eyal Weizman‘s new book from Verso. I’m still getting through Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation which is probably the most interesting and original book I’ve ever read on Palestine, after Anthropological Urbanism‘s Rakan Budeiri told me about the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency project Weizman is involved with.
But I’m even more excited about The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza after Didier Fassin’s Munro Lecture in Edinburgh this March titled ‘Humanitarian reason: a moral economy of our time’. Fassin manages to straddle both anthropological, academic analysis and applied, practical work, and to me that’s what anthropology is all about. I should probably write a separate post about how amazing Didier Fassin is, but basically he got me thinking about how the catch-all concept of humanitarianism is really a way of depoliticising injustice, and is a banner under which all sorts of atrocities can be carried out, but is impossible to oppose. Like democracy. No one can be ‘against’ democracy or humanitarianism, but these are both ideologically flexible terms that are used by states and militaries to justify the most abominable actions, like war in Afghanistan for example, when economic and political motives entirely distinct from democracy and humanitarianism.
This is also something Badiou discusses, and of course Žižek’s Violence urges us to “think about the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence” which call for moral outrage and leave no room for sober reflection (2008:3). I’m really enjoying these writers at the moment, so reading that Eyal Weizman is also joining the debate around humanitarianism fills me with nerdy anticipation.
His book seems like it might touch on similar ground to Fassin and Rechtman’s Empire of Trauma as well as Žižek’s Violence, exploring “the defining intervention of Médecins Sans Frontières in mid-1980s Ethiopia; the separation wall in Israel-Palestine; and international and human rights law in Bosnia, Gaza and Iraq,” and showing “how military and political intervention acquired a new “humanitarian” acceptability and legality”. Nonetheless, Weizman is sure to bring new insights and analysis to this discussion, and I can’t wait to get hold of a copy.