Remembrance Sunday is fast approaching, and, encouraged by the ubiquitous fluorescence of the nation's lapels, I duly donated my money and bought a poppy today. This year, however, there's an addition to the increasingly commercialised national ritual - namely The Call, a charity single by The Poppy Girls. It feels curmudgeonly to criticise any money-raising venture, and especially one whose flag-bearers are so obviously ingenuous and filled with benevolent intentions, but something about the whole thing doesn't sit right.
The group were selected through a process likened by both judges and contestants to the X Factor, and the song was released to a fanfare of praise, with the girls invited to strike angelic poses on various TV sofas. No doubt, the song will help raise money, and this is a good thing. What is not so good, is that the whole process goes some way to missing the point of the otherwise rightly esteemed legacy of the ninety-two-year-old Poppy Appeal. The Poppy is a symbol, and a potent one at that. But the purpose of symbols is that they point beyond themselves - they are visual signifiers of a deeper meaning. By willfully drawing on the populism of saturday night talent shows, the significance of the Appeal is lost in the spectacle of competition. The Girls and their song therefore do not become catalysts for remembering the brutalities of war, but rather help us forget.
The worthy practice of donating first-hand, with its inherent 'nothing in return' aspect, is replaced with the more morally ambiguous purchasing of an MP3. When you put pennies in the Chelsea Pensioner's box and collect your poppy, you are forced, however momentarily, to individually reflect on the meaning of the paper token you've acquired. But when you join in a mass-consumption ritual like digitally downloading a file on iTunes, there's no emotional connection, no need to think about why you're buying it other than 'trying to get it to Number 1' or because it's for an ambiguous 'good cause'.
In fact, buying something in a one off exchange could, perversely, aid the process of forgetting. Once bought, the song can reside on a laptop, conscience absolved, purpose forgotten. This is all the more true of the song dangerously romanticises war. The point of Remembrance Sunday is to force us to reflect on the savagery of the Trenches and the tremendous loss of life during World War II, 'lest we forget' the bloodshed and discount the suffering. The Call, on the other hand, encourages a non-thinking acceptance of war, especially those in which we are now embroiled, by capitalising on Remembrance Sunday to build conflicts such as Iraq into a 'grand narrative' alongside WWI/II/The Falklands.
This is dangerous, because it risks appropriating the imagery of Remembrance to validate our participation in current conflicts, and turns the Poppy into a badge that meaninglessly says 'I support our troops'; defanged of its potency to speak meaningfully about suffering and the lessons of history. It equates wars of the past, fought for freedom by conscripts with wars of the present, fought without popular consent by soldiers by choice for morally ambiguous ends. It exemplifies the forgetting that haunts Siegfried Sassoon's 'Aftermath', where he asks:
Do you remember the rats; and the stench / Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench... / Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?
By all means, give to the Royal British Legion, and give generously, but don't be distracted from asking the questions real remembrance demands.
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