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Speak out against war

On Sunday thousands of people took part in wreath-laying ceremonies in cities, towns and villages around the country. In London the Queen and members of the political, military and religious establishment laid wreaths at the cenotaph in the familiar slow, solemn, unchanged and presumably unchangeable ceremony.

All involved wore their red poppies with pride, or sorrow. All remembered and honoured the fallen and most will be back next year to do it all over again.

The loss or maiming of so many young people is deplorable, and sympathy for the bereaved a natural and decent human response. One cannot react in any other way on seeing yet another flag draped coffin, or on witnessing a living, but war-ravaged young soldier bravely enduring his injuries and facing a life of permanent disability.

It is for the rehabilitation and support of such men and women that people mostly wear their red poppies. They claim that it is not a political act, the red poppy is a symbol of respect only and nothing to do with war, militarism or imperialism. It is a patriotic act also but that's fine they believe. Meanwhile the many fewer who wear the white poppy may find themselves criticised or even, sometimes, abused. Those people are “flaunting” their political allegiances apparently, and their pacifism and undermining the work of the Royal British Legion.

But those wearing the red poppy, the white poppy, or in some cases both together are all making political statements of some sort. Those who choose the white over the red are also pointing out something else. They are saying not only that war must be abolished and the causes that lead to war alleviated or dealt with in other ways, but that to begin to do that people must not remain silent.

We have already had two minutes of silence at 11 am on Sunday. There was another two minute silence after the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday night and on Wednesday at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day and month, millions of people will fall silent for yet another two minute period in town centres, workplaces and private homes across the UK.

Silence is good and necessary sometimes, it can be a healing and calming thing, but there is a quality to this particular silence that is different. It is different not only because it is imposed but because even the very thoughts we are supposed to be entertaining are prescribed for us.

We are meant to be thinking of the right people for the right reasons. Our thoughts should be for the fallen soldiers in all “our” wars, those who have “laid down their lives to protect us” and who “died fighting for their country” and remembering too perhaps the civilians of those wars, even maybe those in Afghanistan and Iraq. We ought not really spend too much of the precious allotment of the two minutes thinking about the other side's army, or the rag-tag militias of Afghanistan or why it is that their men sometimes feel bound to go off and fight for the likes of the Taleban.

The Goddess of Peace at Verdun holds her finger to her lips symbolising the unutterability of war. Likewise we must not mention the war/s or, if we must, we ought at least not question the notion of war itself, its purpose or its necessity. We must keep respectfully quiet and we probably will, despite the fact that those opposing the occupation of Afghanistan are now in the clear majority.

Of that 64% many say they support the troops, not realising maybe or preferring not to recognise, that supporting “our boys and girls” entails supporting what they do. People need to face up to the facts, wake up and speak up. Mourn, honour, think or pray during the two minutes, but then speak out. Otherwise we will be coming together at the cenotaph and war memorials and keeping the silence for countless years in countless more wars to come.

Fiona Harrington
9 November 2009

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