Khadija Kothia, BA History
Annually, the clocks go back, poppy stalls begin to appear, and public discourse turns towards remembrance of 11 November – Armistice Day. It is the day that Europe lays down its wreaths in memory of the “War to end all wars”, and to remember those killed by the catastrophic bloodshed that ensued as Europe’s great powers fought over their slice of the power pie. By 1945, both world wars had killed over 75 million people. Many died for nations they had never seen.
At 11 a.m. on 11 November, the nation pays tribute to its war heroes who, on this day, lay down their weapons and promised peace. This year, Theresa May lay down a wreath in memory of those killed in war. Perhaps, not, in memory of the twenty million civilians currently starving to death at the hands of British weapons in Yemen. Behind her stood former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, appearing solemn and silent, though probably not in memory of the 400,000 Iraqis he is responsible for killing after 2003. Definitely, however, for the 179 British soldiers who fell in combat on that same land.
In recent years, British war memory seems to be less white-washed, as posters of brown-skinned soldiers wearing shalwar and turbans in place of helmets flood textbook pages; a cheers to the blacks and browns who victoriously fought alongside whites in what was described as ‘The Great War for Civilisation’. But ‘civilisation’ was the same word that Britain had taken to the shores of South Asia, to West Africa, and to the West Indies, on their quest to colonise its people and “civilise the barbarians”. To portray the diversity of the British army as a collective unit of togetherness is a huge injustice to the non-White lives lost in the name of British victory, not least hypocritical. There was no collective unity. Those in the colonies were forced to fight in a white man’s war that should never have affected them. To defect was to be killed at the hands of the British muzzle. Even the abolishment of slavery was put on hold during the war effort. Despite Europeans establishing themselves as the founders of civility, slaves were still used to fund the war economy. As David Olusoga describes in his article, titled, “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable”, he states that, “when the guns fell silent in 1918, both victors and vanquished turned against the black and brown men who had fought in what the victory medals then being struck for each allied soldier called ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ ”. Displays of the British army’s diversity are wholly insincere without a holistic discussion of Britain’s role in the coercion of a diverse army.
“Memorial Day has become the shallowest facade against the cruel reality that, for the establishment, lives lost in war just do not matter.”
As poppies start to populate public spaces and war memorials become ever more present, it is almost an ironic display. Our government remembers war whilst creating war, and claims to sincerely remember those killed whilst sending for more lives to be killed. It is almost pantomimic, sadistic by the lowest of standards. It is to mock those who lost their lives in war, and to say that we haven’t yet learnt our lesson. Thus, Memorial Day has become the shallowest facade against the cruel reality that, for the establishment, lives lost in war just do not matter.
Remembrance is not only unjust towards non-white lives that fought for the British army. We place down wreaths and read Wilfred Owen poems without comprehending the trauma that soldiers return with from war. Trauma that can’t be swept away by the memorials standing solemnly in Parliament Square. Of course, this does not mean that we must not remember war and the lives tragically lost. However, it is extremely hypocritical to remember war whilst not learning from its lessons. By remembering war every 11 November, as politicians pay respects whilst raising their hands in support of airstrikes abroad, and poppy funds raised by the annual poppy appeal are used to take a burden off the Ministry of Defence by financing veterans of present-day conflicts, we must also question the Ministry we are benefitting and the destructive role of their “defence”. War hurts and devastates all it faces, and whilst we continue to brush over non-politically advantageous lives and garnish over trauma with red-petalled symbols of “remembrance”, we must revisit how war is remembered, and to what extent we are paying true justice to all lives lost.
Photo Credit: Flickr