Monday, November 01, 2010

Remembrance and the pity of war

It was Stanley Payne who coined the phrase 'semantic virus' for the way that the term 'fascism' has been spread, and thereby diluted, in the hands of those who use it as shorthand for anything they find oppressive.

It goes without saying that what people find 'oppressive' today are experiences that are by historical standards - or even contemporary ones - rather light and trivial. I can't think, for example, of a better example of Payne's point than the fact that people can actually imagine it is appropriate to use the epithet 'fascism' to describe the supposed pressure of conformity that people feel around this time when we look forward to Remembrance Day.

Especially when you live in a world where even this doesn't exist - which I do now.

This wasn't always the case. When I was at primary school, we we told what Poppy Day was all about, the token fee we were expected to donate and how you were expected to wear it. (On the lapel of your blazer.) Clearly some would find this - do find this - unbearably stifling of their individuality but then it was simply the done thing. Now there is only one's own thing - and I feel a little nostalgic for this act of collective conformity and a little sad that so many people find it difficult to participate.

From Edinburgh to Glasgow and to the present day. A couple of years ago I found myself in Glasgow's - Europe's, apparently - largest secondary school, which happens to be Roman Catholic. By wearing a poppy, I might have well worn a sign with 'protestant' around my neck. I appreciate those of Catholic Irish origin have no love for the British army but this is not what Remembrance is about. It is not the glorification of war or the military. The title of this post contains an allusion to a book by the (unfairly, in my view) maligned rightwing historian Niall Ferguson. How successful his 'counter-factual' approach to historical questions is beyond the purpose of this post. His contention is that what the allies achieved was not justified by the costs they incurred. There are many historians and students of history that have arrived, from rather different perspectives, to the same conclusion - and even those who don't, recognise the enormous tragedy of this war that set the 20th century in motion.

It is not to celebrate victory or 'militarism' but simply to remember the fallen that one wears a poppy. It is difficult to comment upon the experience of those who feel pressurized into wearing one because I live in a world where no such pressure exists but even so, it is comparing this experience to 'fascism', rather than not wearing one at all, that strikes me as being disrespectful.

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