To the Warmongers

As we approach Remembrance Sunday (which this year lies on 14th November) I find myself once again wearing a poppy on my coat lapel, and having once again to explain this to those I meet in the department and elsewhere who don’t approve. I’ve already said everything I think I need to on this in posts last year and the year before, so I won’t repeat myself at length here.

I am aware (and acutely sensitive to) the danger that the wearing of a poppy might be mistaken for support for militarism and that many of our politicians would like to manipulate the meaning of this symbol in precisely that way for their own ends. Nevertheless, I will wear one and will observe the two minutes’ silence on Thursday too. Why? Lest we forget, that’s why…

But instead of debating this again, I will  post the following poem and letter, both of which were written by Siegfried Sassoon.

The poem is called the To the Warmongers:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss.
Young faces bleared with blood,
Sucked down into the mud,
You shall hear things like this,
Till the tormented slain
Crawl round and once again,
With limbs that twist awry
Moan out their brutish pain,
As for the fighters pass them by.
For you our battles shine
With triumph half-divine;
And the glory of the dead
Kindles in each proud eye.
But a curse is on my head,
That shall not be unsaid,
And the wounds in my heart are red,
For I have watched them die.

The astonishing letter below was written by Siegfried Sassoon in July 1917, and was subsequently read out in the House of Commons. Sassoon narrowly escaped court martial for treason.

It’s worth noting the last two paragraphs:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The tragedy is that these words could equally well have been written about Afghanistan 2010 rather than France or Belgium 1917. The sight of Tony Blair wearing a poppy at the Cenotaph is one that filled me with nausea, but his hypocrisy makes it more, not less, important to hang on to the true meaning. Lest we forget. Nowadays, though, I don’t really “wear my poppy with pride”, but with something rather closer to shame.


16 Responses to “To the Warmongers”

  1. I’ve not bought a poppy for a few years; mainly for me it had lost it’s meaning and become something that you did around now.

    Thank you for reminding me and I hope I never forget again.

  2. You are so right. I wear my poppy in remembrance of the appalling manipulationn of young men sent to the killing fields, and I will never forget how the conditions were deliberately obscured from the public by the government and military establishment. As you say, the parallels are still there today.

  3. Its a pity I can’t buy a poppy where I live. Its not at all militaristic to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

    Regarding Blair, some of his wars were shameful, others not. The often overlooked operation in Sierra Leone was hugely successful and led to a degree of stability and peace for that benighted nation. I also think that an Afghanistan intervention was justified although this particular one seems no longer to have any clear aims in sight.

  4. If you don’t like the implicit militarism of the Red Poppy appeal why not get a White Poppy from the Peace Pledge Union instead which seeks to end all wars and acknowledges all the great losses to humanity, both civilian and military, caused by conflict.

    It has the support of great men such as Frederick Sanger, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and indeed Siegfried Sassoon himself.

    Surely it is better to seek to end war rather than stock up on prostheses for the next one?

  5. The red poppy only carries an implicit meaning of militarism to those who seek to interpret it that way. For me, the red poppy means remembering (and expressing gratitude to) those who died in service.

    I’m sure an occasion could be found to wear a white poppy and support the utopian ideal of no war but this shouldn’t clash with the day of remembrance.

    You mentioned Betrand Russell. Even he recognised that sometimes wars had to be fought. Despite being a pacifist during WW1 he supported the war against Hitler.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    I wear it out of gratitude to those who prevented me (and you, if you were born in postwar Britain) from growing up under Nazism. Funny that the grumblers are also anti-fascist. Are they PRO anything?

    I deplore the sending of British troops “over the top” in WW1 to cross No Man’s Land exposed to concealed machine gunners. The Germans could get no farther west for exactly the same reason. I do not know what would have happened politically had we simply stayed put in our trenches, and neither do the people who think the slaughter was justified. British generals and politicians would never have dared treat a volunteer army like ‘cattle’ to be slaughtered (as Wilfred Owen put it). “Over the top” happened only *after* conscription and it is another horrible example of government thinking that they own the people rather than vice-versa.

    Nevertheless I have no idea what Sassoon meant by asserting that the war was being deliberately prolonged by our leaders or that it was a war of aggression and conquest. On the Western front it was always a war to get Germany out of France, which it had invaded. This is proved by the way it ended. Either Sassoon wrote this while mentally disturbed by shell shock, in which case he deserves compassion, or he was talking wanton drivel and should have been pressed to back his claims with evidence.


    • telescoper Says:

      I believe the reason Sassoon escaped court martial was that the authorities were persuaded that he was indeed suffering from shell shock.

      It’s worth mentioning, I think, that Siegfried Sassoon was decorated for his courage in action during WWI, but threw all his medals into a river in disgust at the ongoing slaughter.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    “The sight of Tony Blair wearing a poppy at the Cenotaph is one that filled me with nausea, but his hypocrisy makes it more, not less, important to hang on to the true meaning. Lest we forget.”

    I couldn’t agree more.


  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Afghanistan is a “faraway country of which we know little”. Neville Chamberlain’s words of folly about Czechoslovakia genuinely apply here. After 9/11 I would not have raised diplomatic objections to the US chasing after al-Qaeda in its own bases, but it was never our job. British soldiers take an oath to defend Queen and country, and it is morally wrong to ask them to do tasks that obviously run beyond that oath. In the 19th century Britain had an empire and men who joined up understood that policing was part of active service, but all that was a a long time ago now. Chasing communist and fascist aggressors off Crown territory (as in the Falklands) is what the army should be for nowadays. These men are flesh and blood not machines, as has unhappily become obvious recently.

  9. I don’t agree with you Anton. The 9/11 attacks were an attack on the west not just America. Furthermore, the US invoked the NATO charter calling on all member states to regard 9/11 as being an attack on all member states. Should Britain have refused to have join in this would have threatened the long term existence of NATO – I’m not suggesting that the organisation would have collapsed overnight. Our national security depends on NATO and keeping the alliance together ought to be paramount in any decisions to commit troops IMO. The cold war may be over but a large fraction of the nuclear missiles which threatened us still exist in what is an unstable country.

    I don’t btw excuse the mistakes that were made and are continuing to be made in Afghanistan. However, signing up to a campaign was not a mistake IMO.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:


    The people behind 9/11 hate the whole of the West and not just America, but unless you go along with GW Bush’s fatuous phrase “war on terror” then 9/11 was not part of a ‘war’ in the sense of the word that NATO was created to repel.


  11. Supporting a campaign in Afghanistan does not imply that I buy the unending “war on terror” or “axis of evil” etc etc. The events of 9/11 demanded a specific military response against a state which would otherwise have represented a continued and major threat to the western countries. NATO is an appopriate vehicle with which to carry out that action.

    NATO was set up to defend a certain set of countries against the Eastern Bloc states. However, times and threats change. A failed state can be just as much a threat as a well organised and heavily armed one. I don’t support NATO becoming a global policeman, rather that it should intervene if, as in the case of 9/11, military action against a state is unambiguously demanded.

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dave: NATO was certainly for State-on-State actions, and al-Qaeda, although based in Afghanistan, were never its government. I think that people are too cavalier about not respecting governments of other nations nowadays. the last time there was a morass of internationalist rhetoric was the 1930s and much good it turned out to be.

    9/11 was not done by the Afghan government. USA should have gone in, been prepared to lose more men than it did in order to hunt down al-Qaeda, then get out again. Yet it has failed to get Osama and it is still there! And so are our troops. One officer I know was told before his first tour to expect casualties on the scale of the Falklands. The drain on taxpayers is also huge. Do you think the USA would have accepted a British invoking of NATO if 9/11 had happened in London?

    If USA really wants to continue down this road then the way we can help them is not by sending our own flesh and blood but by dusting off some old papers in the Foreign Office archives and teaching them how to run an Empire.

  13. Anton: Afghanistan has never had what we would call a functioning government which exercised a writ throughout the country. An organisation which was supported by what we called the Afghan government committed an attack on the west. It is, however, moot as to whether that organisation was supported by the “government” or whether the “government” was itself relying on the (financial and other) support of al-Qaeda. It is a grey area in moral terms whether one regards the 9/11 attack as being state sponsored and therefore requiring an attack against a state. In legal terms the position may be more clear or unclear depending on one’s reading of international law (itself a murky concept). However, I prefer anyway to be guided by the moral position as I see it.

    Regarding the intervention, I certainly think NATO should have gone in, displaced the Taliban, and left – returning only if it appeared that the state could credibly represent a threat to the west. Generous should also be given on a long term basis to NGOs operating there. That is my idea of an Afghan campaign. Nation building by armies in that part of the world is destined to fail, not least since few populations (and Afghans especially) welcomes an army of occupation (possible exceptions include, eg, post-war western Germany, given the Soviet occupation of the east).

    The main reason why the UK should have been involved include the NATO principle of an attack against one country regarded as an attack against each of them. In this case, the attack certainly was one against the west. Furthermore, we may require help from the US in the future and I am nervous about any future US disengagement from Europe.

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dave: We agree about a lot, especially the fact that the concept of “international law” is bullshit while enforcement of law is intranational. (There are only international *treaties*.)

    But did we go in for the right reasons even by your criteria? Read Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party about NuLabour’s 2nd and 3rd terms to get a remarkable and revealing peek at what was going on behind the scenes: Blair wanting to get close to Bush (not such a bad idea given that GWB was then the most powerful man in the world) but totally misplaying it.

    Displacing the Taliban and then leaving is exactly what the West is trying to do there. Army people I know who have been out there say that the locals detest the Taliban but will not organise to fight them, while the Western presence helps Taliban recruit. Provided the Taliban stay inside Afghanistan then, frankly, I care little if they win the place. The USA – and *possibly* NATO – should have gone after al-Qaeda and then got out. In a way you have to respect the Afghans; I’d hate to live there but in the last 150 years they have seen off the British Empire and the Soviet Empire and are now doing the same to USA; that’s
    Afghanis 3 Superpowers 0.

  15. Anton: I’ve read Rawnsley’s book and became more disgusted with each page I turned. Gordon Brown’s biography (Tom Bower) is also useful in understanding how the last government made decisions (though it doesn’t contain so much about Blair’s wars – Brown tended to stay clear of those).

    I agree that Blair used a different criteria to mine for going in and that is probably the reason why we’re stuck there with no end in sight.

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