By Nicholas Figgis
Attempts by government ministers and their friends in the press to use the Remembrance ceremony as a political tool reached farcical heights this weekend.
The Telegraph called in the big guns, citing the opinion of etiquette expert, William Hanson, whose heavyweight contribution to world affairs includes advice on whether or not to stick your finger out when drinking tea. Hanson let it be known that while it was Corbyn’s right to dishonour soldiers with the wrong kind of bow, it betrayed his lack of statesmanship. As Owen Jones has pointed out, Jeremy would do well to study photographs of David Cameron grovelling before violent autocrats if he really wants to learn to cut it on the international stage.
High minded squabbling over what and how we remember may be ugly but it is not new. On the first Remembrance Day in 1919 an editorial in the Daily Express asked that “all classes… combine as they did to win the war, unselfishly and harmoniously [to] end industrial strife… lest the rewards of victory be thrown away.”
However, according to Ben Griffin of Veterans for Peace (VfP) a group whose aim is to “to convince people that war is not the answer to the problems of the 21st century”, this attempted hijack of public opinion has intensified in recent years.
“[Military] propaganda is at full tilt during the Remembrance period. What used to be one week of dignified mourning has become a three week celebration of our Armed Forces and the wars they fight.”
In Whitehall Place, after the crowds had mostly dispersed, men and women of Veterans for Peace gathered and began preparing for their own ceremony of remembrance. The group greeted one another as they put on light blue hoodies bearing the epitaph ‘war is organised slaughter’, the words of Harry Patch, ‘last Tommy’. Griffin, a former SAS soldier, shook hands and handed out white poppies while he called the group together. A banner was unfurled with the simple message ‘Never Again’ and, followed by a small crowd of supporters and family, they made their way down Whitehall.
On arrival at The Cenotaph there was a hiatus as the sound of a bass drum could be heard approaching and a cluster of Union Jacks came into view. “We just wait, this doesn’t affect what we’re here to do” was Griffin’s response as the national front marched past. After a pause a song was sung by one of the group and a poem spoken. Then they stood still with hands clasped as a bugler played the last post and a wreath of white poppies was laid, standing out in stark contrast to the surrounding sea of red. Here was a group of people who know first-hand the consequences of conflict standing together to advocate its end. There was no military insignia and no attempt to dress the ugliness of war in the language of sacrifice and victory.
It is this divisive use of language which Griffin believes is so insidious. “It is highly deceptive” he says, “the military, politicians and media talk of the ‘fallen’. There are no fallen. Death in warfare is brutal, being blown to pieces, riddled with bullets, burning alive. The Royal British Legion demand that we remember British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in war but they ignore the vast numbers of civilians, children and enemy soldiers [who] were also killed.”
This explains the presence of German veterans among the ranks of VfP.
“We have an open invitation to veterans of all countries to walk with us on Remembrance Sunday [and we] invite [them] to join us to work towards the abolition of war.”
Griffin has previously been approached by the British Legion, to discuss their marching in the official parade. He is open to the possibility but “on the condition that we can carry our banner ‘Never Again’, lay white poppies at the Cenotaph and have foreign veterans marching with us.” So far these conditions have met with resistance.
Does he sense a similar antipathy from other veterans or members of the public?
“No. We have been to The Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday for the last three years and have not received criticism from other veterans or members of the public. I think the wider public understand what we’re doing, after all the original sentiment of Armistice Day was ‘Never Again’.”
As for the media’s feigned outrage at Corbyn’s conduct: “It’s what you should expect. The establishment are terrified that an anti-war, anti-trident, anti-austerity politician with the backing of millions of ordinary people just might become Prime Minister.”
Britain has been engaged in military conflict overseas in every year since the ‘war to end all wars’. Mass murder, pillaging of resources and destruction of fragile societies have been sold to us under the guise of our national security. In the process, the world has bacome a deeply insecure place: the Middle East is in disintegration and tensions between nuclear nations have prompted the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock to ‘3 minutes to midnight’. It is time for us to listen to the peace makers.