Yesterday was Remembrance Day, the memorial held in the commonwealths which began at the end of World War 1 to remember those in the armed forces who died in the line of duty. Since 1920 the red poppy has been used as the symbol for this commemoration, the sales of which go to the Royal British Legion and the Haig Fund, set up by Douglas Haig, commander during the Battle of the Somme which saw some of the highest casualties in British military history (some have dubbed him “Butcher Haig” for the 2 million casualties under his command).
As well as symbolizing respect for those who died during the world wars, to many the poppy is a symbol of the values such wars were allegedly fought for – peace, prosperity, free speech and freedom from tyranny. However, as the arrest of a man for posting an image of a burning poppy on a social media site and the reaction of many members of the public demonstrates, the very principles the poppy is supposed to stand for have been lost in a fog of irrational, misguided patriotism.
The unnamed man was arrested by Kent police for posting the image and detained on Sunday night on suspicion of making malicious telecommunications, sparking intense discussions on both sides of the debate on freedom of speech. Human rights advocates such as Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch are calling the arrest “utterly ridiculous” while David Allen Green of the New Statesman said, “What was the point of winning either World War if, in 2012, someone can be casually arrested by Kent Police for burning a poppy?”
The action was clearly crass and deliberately provocative, but the arrest raises some disturbing questions about the direction freedom of expression and civil liberties are heading in the United Kingdom. It seems as if Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s maxim, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is slowly but surely becoming redundant, the principles we are told these soldiers died to protect are being rejected without a trace of bitter irony by the very people who wear their poppies with pride.
Across social network sites many are supportive of the arrest, displaying an attitude of “if you don’t like it you can leave the country” underpinning a rhetoric characterized by intolerance; an uncontrolled clamour for increasingly draconian measures, perversely in the name of freedom.
War is peace. Freedom is slavery…
Another irony is the gulf between the simplistic understanding of the dynamics surrounding the two world wars as a battle between good and evil – fighting the good fight for our freedoms – and the wider complexities of these immense historical events. We should respect those soldiers who laid down their lives believing they were fighting for a good cause, but we should not pretend that the realities of such causes are as simplistic as we are told.
Hitler may have been the personification of evil, but a close examination of his rise to power raises some disturbing questions about the true nature of World War 2. For example, the Nazis had close ties to a number of prominent bankers and industrialists in Europe and the United States, many of whom were exempt from appearing at the Nuremberg trials and went on to play a large role in the shaping of the post-war world. Perhaps the most infamous of these are the Bush family, with the grandfather of the most recent Bush president, Prescott Bush, a major Wall Street player in the financing of Hitler.
As General Smedley Butler famously said, “war is a racket”, and nowhere is this more obvious than with the close ties between American corporations and the fascist regime in Germany – not only were the Nazis supported by British and American banking interests, they were ably assisted in their efforts by the likes of IBM, who provided the computers which assisted in the mass murders of the concentration camps, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, who provided the tetraethyl lead gasoline required for the Luftwaffe planes, and Henry Ford, recipient of the Nazi Grand Cross of the German Eagle, who openly espoused the anti-Semitic views of the Nazis in his book, The International Jew.
War is perhaps the greatest evil mankind can inflict upon itself, and when the justifications for it are masked in the superficial veneer of patriotic appeals without understanding the dynamics which underpin them we run the risk of unwittingly perpetuating the very climate which justifies further violence. We should not condone the actions of a man who burned the poppy but we should respect those fallen soldiers who died to preserve the freedom for him to do so, however insensitive and wrong-headed such actions are. Failure to do so means ultimately that our ancestors died for nothing.