The Perversion of the Poppy: What should we remember on Remembrance Day?

The poppy was meant to commemorate those who fought “The War to End War” while reminding us of the horror of war, but the purveyors of war have perverted the poppy as an advertising logo to glorify war.   

The 11th of November is Remembrance Day in Canada. Elsewhere you might know the day to honour the war dead as Armistice Day, Veterans’ Day, or Poppy Day.

What should we remember on this day?

The first people who wore poppies in the 1920s wanted us to remember the sacrifices made by the soldiers of the “Great War”. But they also wanted us to remember the horror of war, so we would never go to war again. They wanted to ensure that what was then known as “The Great War”, or simply “The World War”, would truly be “The War to End War”, as their political and military leaders had promised it would be.

Yet, the unsustainable settlement of that First World War led to a Second World War, and a third – the Cold War, which was an extremely hot and destructive war for those unfortunate enough to be stuck on the boundaries between the American and Soviet empires.

Since 2001, we have been embroiled in the Global War on/of Terror. This fourth global war in a century has thus far been fought overtly on battlefronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most recently Libya, and an all but forgotten invasion of Haiti in 2004. It is also fought covertly on not-so-secret battlefronts throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Ten years after launching the invasion of Afghanistan, the politicians and generals continue to escalate this fourth world war with no end in sight.

Humanity has come full circle, since 1914, when Austrian leaders and their closest allies used a terrorist attack as a pretext to begin the First World War, to 2001, when American leaders and their closest allies used a terrorist attack as a pretext to begin a fourth world war.

If only the Bush administration, the Blair government in Britain, and the Chrétien government here in Canada, had heeded the lessons of the first poppy wearers; if only at a minimum those leaders had obeyed the precepts of international law.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a wise statesperson would have counselled observance of international law that forbids aggressive military action. After all, every statesperson should remember the Austrian leaders and their German allies were condemned for their aggressive response to a terrorist attack. The triumphant allied forces forced the vanquished Austrian and German people to pay punishing reparations after the war.

If George W. Bush had followed the letter of the law to seek justice via legal means of criminal investigation and prosecution, he would no doubt have suffered domestic political fallout, but he would not be known to future generations as a war criminal. A significant number of Americans lusted for blood as vengeance for the 9/11 attacks. But vengeance is not justice; it is a crime.

Instead of abiding the tenets of international law, our political leaders manipulated bloodlust and fear to justify launching a global war with the stated intent of eliminating terrorists and securing global peace. They also manipulated goodwill and our genuine desire to do good by claiming our intentions were to liberate the people of Afghanistan and especially Afghan women and girls.

The Clash of Principles and Interests

Ten years after it began, it is clear the Battle for Afghanistan, as part of the larger Global War on/of Terror, is liberating Afghans of their resources rather than liberating them from oppression.

The façade of the mission to spread democracy and freedom has worn through to reveal the interests that lie below.

Listen to the words CBC war correspondent Matthew Halton recorded on Remembrance Day 1944. Noting that Canada gained power and prestige by fighting in WWII, Halton observes: “Splendid things come out of war, but war is a thing to be ashamed of”.

Halton’s comments should remind us that wars are not something to honour; “war is a thing to be ashamed of”.

But, Halton also reminds us that wars are not accidents; wars are the deliberate implementation of state policy. State leaders go to war to pursue what they perceive are their state’s interests.

Securing access to petroleum resources as one of many vital strategic resources is currently a primary concern. But analyses that focus exclusively on an American quest for oil exclude the deeper interests of state leaders. Tomorrow an alternative energy source could be found, but this would not radically change the expansion of the current American led Empire of Capital. During the centuries of evolution from mercantilist to capitalist empires, which began in the 15th century, empires sought gold, spices, indigo, sugar, tea, cotton, fish, lumber, and even beaver pelts among a long list of resources. What are considered vital resources has changed throughout the age of empires, but the underlying logic legitimising the forceful control of access to resources has not.

Moreover, the quest for ever cheaper labour to extract and process resources is always a constant regardless of the waxing or waning of the strategic and/or market value of any particular resource.

Despite having won the Nobel Peace Prize, US President Barack Obama flouts international law and the quest for peace when he claims: “I will not hesitate to use force to protect American people or our vital interests”.

The president would be exercising his legal rights, as they are defined by international law, if he indeed defends the American people.

But how do we define America’s vital interests?

If we distil the various vital interests of the United States down to their most basic elements we can see the intertwined strategic interests of expanding global economic liberalisation and strengthening what Zbigniew Brzezinski refers to as American Primacy.

The sixth chapter of the US National Security Strategy of 2002, titled “Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth Through Free Trade and Free Markets” affirms the quest for “free trade” is the central economic imperative of the state, as it was for the preceding British Empire. This chapter of what is popularly known as the Bush Doctrine defines “real freedom” as free trade – the freedom for investors to invest globally.

The economic interests of liberalisation trump the social and political principles of liberalism. This clash of principles and interests is as old as the contradictory ideas of liberalism and economic liberalisation, but it has become evermore evident as people demand the greater rights and freedoms that clash with the wealth-accumulating interests of investors and power-accumulating interests of states.

American Primacy, in a nutshell, affirms the nationalistic/racist belief that Americans are exceptional.

The two concepts combined dictate an American Foreign Policy predicated on the US aided by its closest allies control the expansion of the economic liberalisation of the globe.

When a US president sends the military anywhere in the world to “protect” American interests he is not acting legally. When the British, or Canadians, or others ally with the US in such a mission to satisfy their own interests congruent with American interests, they are complicit and equally responsible for the crime of war.

The Hundred Years War, the Clash of Empires, and New World Order

Woodrow Wilson’s New World Order has repeatedly failed to fulfil its promises of peace and prosperity. The international system based on the intertwined concepts of nation-states and capitalism President Wilson et al. first set in place, in 1919, despite its major renovations at the end of WWII, has failed to secure global peace.

Leaders of the wealthiest most powerful states use the institutions of the New World Order to serve their own state interests, which is to control and reap the greatest benefits via global economic liberalisation, rather than to further the political and social principles of liberalism expounded by Wilson and those who followed.

Interests trump principles and in the current anarchic international system the most powerful prevail.

And in this current international system, warfare is the ultimate display of power. To deliberately flout international law, as the US and its closest allies including Canada do with increasing frequency, is to display their power as a warning – these displays of power are pre-emptive attacks. The warning is: regardless of international law and even regardless of great costs, the American led Empire of Capital will secure American Primacy and global economic liberalisation by force if necessary.

Rather than four separate world wars, Niall Ferguson perceives this past century as a “global hundred years war”. He observes that this century of warfare has been a war of empires not nation-states, which has resulted in not a triumph of the West but a resurgence of the East.

I strongly dispute Ferguson’s analysis that concludes it is only race not class that is the underlying causal factor of this hundred years war. We cannot ignore the intersections of race, class as well as gender that underlie the past century of war. But his basic observations regarding the continuity of this century of war are worthy of note.

Since the collapse of the USSR and thus the removal of that existential threat to American Primacy, Western strategists have feared China as the next existential threat. Perhaps as Huntington imagined in his “Clash of Civilizations” scenario China could ally with some or most of the Islamic states of Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to threaten American Primacy.

The pre-emptive strategy of the American led Empire of Capital is to forestall, with military force if necessary, the emergence of competing empires and most notably this much feared Chinese led empire.

The invasion of Afghanistan, rather than serving to liberate Afghans, which it has not done, is serving to pre-emptively engage China economically at the same time as a new network of American and NATO bases deep in the heart of Eurasia militarily contain China and its potential allies, particularly Iran.

Regardless of possible outcomes, investors in the massive North American military industrial complex (MIC) profit from the Global War on Terror. And yes the military industrial complex is North American and is increasingly including Europe; it is not exclusively American.

Investors in the industries of the sibling of the MIC, the development industrial complex (DIC), stand to make huge profits as they receive their shares of developing the transportation-communications-energy transmission corridors of the New Silk Road and exploit the vast resources of Afghanistan and surrounding states. Without the American led military invasion few of these industries would have any comparative advantage over competing industries from China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi and elsewhere in the immediate neighbourhood.

Our political and military leaders never told us they have geopolitical and economic interests in invading Afghanistan, but the concrete evidence of these interests is irrefutable.

During the supposedly humanitarian mission in Libya, which instantly mutated to become a mission to overthrow the Ghadaffi regime, numerous news media speculated about the economic interests served by destroying the state enterprises of Libya.…r-business.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2&pagewanted=print

The economic imperative of the emerging American led Empire of Capital is not a secret.

The Perversion of the Poppy

So we continue to forget what those first poppy wearers wanted to tell us. And we forget because the purveyors of war purposefully pervert the meaning of the poppy. The poppy is no longer meant to remind us of the horror of war. Instead, the purveyors of war have subverted the meaning of the poppy to use it as an advertising logo to promote the greater militarization of our society. The poppy is used to justify our illegal and illegitimate forceful imperial interventions in the affairs of other people.

In recent years I’ve watched poppies sprout alongside Canadian highways. But these poppies are not growing in ditches and along fencerows, they are painted on road signs proclaiming one highway is the “Highway of Heroes” and another is the “Route of Heroes”.

Robert Fisk, a journalist who has covered almost every battle fought during his long career, recently wrote about his father, a WWI veteran. The elder Fisk refused to wear the poppy late in his life saying he didn’t want to see “so many damn fools” wearing them. He came to this conclusion after realising the politicians and generals had lied about both why and how The Great War was fought. Fisk Sr., after losing so many comrades during that war, was left later in his life with the realisation that The Great War was nothing but “a great waste”.

This week, I played a concert in the war veterans’ wing at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. The last of the WWI vets are long gone, but a few veterans of WWII still reside at the hospital.

Doubtful of how many in this audience of elderly veterans had reached the epiphany the elder Fisk had, I made one concession in the interest of not disturbing them; I exchanged my preferred white poppy for a red one.

But I meet younger veterans of the recent battles on a regular basis, particularly after my speaking engagements. Those who seek me out to talk express their great frustration, probably like Robert Fisks’ father. They have realised their political and military leaders lied to them about why we went to war and lied to them about the actions, often unethical and almost as often illegal, that they would be expected to do when they got to battle.

I play music for the elderly veterans at Sunnybrook several times a year. It might seem odd that an anti-war activist volunteers to play music for war vets. Explaining why I do would take too much space here.

I’m an antiwar activist and advocate of non-violent action, but I am not a pacifist. If it were ever necessary to defend my family, close friends, or perhaps even strangers from great harm, I would do so.

However, the operative words are “if” and “necessary” and “defend”. These words introduce an immense set of questions. Under what conditions would I ever consider exercising violence? I would most certainly only resort to violence as a very last means of defence after rationally calculating there is no other viable option to defend myself or someone else.

Resorting to violence, as a very last means of defence, is not only an ethical consideration at the level of interpersonal human relations, it is prescribed by international law at the level of international relations.

Unfortunately, as we approach the centenary of the “War to End War”, nation-states continue to use violence as acts of aggression, both domestically against their own people and internationally against other states or groups of people, to further state interests.

And our politicians and generals continue to lie about why we go to war and how we fight when we get there.

Retaliation  can only satisify bloodlust and pre-emptive warfare inflames greater resistance. Violating the laws we claim to uphold demonstrates hypocrisy not honour.

Living in a liberal democracy, does allow a latitude of freedom. However, when it comes to issues of war, we continually fail to remember to ask the most important questions: Why are we going to war; and how will we conduct ourselves in battle once war has begun?

If nothing else, the original wearers of the poppy wanted us to remember to ask these important sceptical questions. The most certainly would have expected us to demand evidence rather than maintain blind faith in the jingoism of those who would go to war for profit and power.

© Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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1 Comment

  1. Samsquanch

     /  November 2, 2012

    Kudos. Great post.


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