by Shane Thomas Follow @tokenbg
It’s said that Christmas starts earlier every year. It increasingly feels the same regarding the wearing of poppies in November to commemorate Britain’s Armed Forces. Two years ago, the cause célèbre was the wearing (or non-wearing) of the “poppy hijab”. In 2016, it’s football that is the site of controversy, as England played Scotland at Wembley last Friday. To mark Armistice Day, the players wore black armbands with poppies embroidered onto them. This was in deliberate contravention of FIFA regulations, which decree, “political, religious, commercial, personal statements, images and/or other announcements, is strictly prohibited.”
The FA petitioned FIFA to make an exception – as they did in 2011 – but FIFA refused, with their Secretary General, Fatma Samoura saying by way of explanation, “Britain is not the only country that have been suffering from the result of war… My own continent [Africa] has been torn by war for years. The only question is why are we doing exceptions for just one country and not the rest of the world?”
It’s not difficult for public opinion to be against FIFA, as they’ve done plenty – past and present – to ensure they’re viewed as favourably as Honey G would be at Afropunk, yet it shouldn’t be overlooked that the English and Scottish FA’s co-signed FIFA’s ban when it was instituted, and the way newspapers have spoken of Samoura shows that good-faith pushback is often absent when a black – and Muslim – woman is the subject of critique.
Choosing to reflexively demean Samoura meant there was little engagement with her argument. While honouring British service personnel – living or dead – may be seen as basic decency, what the military represent isn’t an objective thing. Case in point, roughly 1,000 soldiers venerated at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine are regarded as war criminals.
FIFA has an obligation to countries outside our own, and a firm knowledge of history would suggest that plenty of other nations wouldn’t always look at the British military with a great deal of fondness. Much of the bristling towards FIFA appears to be propelled by their rejection of the notion that a lionisation of the Armed Forces isn’t laden with unimpeachable probity.
This doesn’t mean FIFA’s attempt at apoliticism isn’t flawed. What makes the wearing of black armbands acceptable, but a poppy design beyond the pale? Also, national anthems are sung before every international match. Try telling Colin Kaepernick they don’t carry political weight.
Acts of remembrance in the England/Scotland pre-match were permitted, poppies could still be sold outside the ground, and players could wear them both before and after the match. It was only during the 90 minutes that these symbols fell foul of regulations.
Conversations around mortality are naturally emotive, so this isn’t about impugning the warranted grief felt by those who lost loved ones in conflict, or the memory of those who live(d) in times of war. It’s not unreasonable that the English and Scottish FA’s wished to display a form of anamnesis, and at first, I wasn’t much exercised by this issue.
But once much of the established press, and especially the Prime Minister, strongly voiced their respective displeasure, it then behoved one to pay close attention. Why did it matter to such a febrile degree that FIFA’s diktat was brazenly flouted? This national stance felt less mournful and more bellicose.
How much of this debate is about a poppy on a football shirt – which despite claims of tradition, has lasted for the grand total of seven years – and how much of it is about the poppy’s utility in British society?
Theresa May hasn’t suddenly taken a keen interest in international football, but she’s not ignorant of how it can be used to reinforce her specific vision for the country, where an animation of strident nationalism further fortifies the global shift towards normalising authoritarian right-wing sentiment. Wearing a poppy – especially if you’re a public figure – has become less a show of reverence, and more a compulsory civic duty.
This is peer pressure from those you may not be comfortable thinking of as peers, with a peaceful existence in Britain appearing contingent on prescribed modes of behaviour. This is extremely useful to a Prime Minister who has already invoked imagery of a paradoxically nebulous but detectable cosmopolitan elite, whose dislike of her government is evidence of nothing more than anti-British sentiment.
Reporting from Wembley, Rory Smith observed; “…All of the stamping of feet and screaming of dissent about the forbidden poppies did nothing to further what the poppy nominally represented: sincere, somber reflection.”
Individual interpretations of respect have become insufficient. It no longer matters if you care unless you’re seen to care. There were Premier League clubs who had poppies woven into their shirts in the last weekend of October. This type of performative nationalism says less about those being honoured than it does about those doing the honouring.
When journalist, Charlene White appeared poppyless on television, she was met with bigoted sentiment, the gist of which was, “Wear a poppy, or get out of this country”. What was once an understated show of acknowledgement is now intrusive surveillance on the fealty of the public.
And it also serves to underscore the ostensible virtue, and a silent acquiescence, of the military. Adam Serwer noted; “Normal politics however, are distorted by the currents of wartime nationalism, which can make any criticism of the excesses of security officials seem disloyal if not seditious.” Ambiguity around how the British government mediate with its Armed Forces was removed once May announced she intends for Britain’s soldiers to have immunity from human rights prosecution. Under her aegis, the military are figuratively bulletproof.
As with the police, my focus isn’t on individual good and bad actors, but a state structure that has contributed to violence around the world. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of this country to feel sorrowful over dead and injured soldiers, without automatically feeling their cause was always just. Britain only fought the Third Reich once.
During this period of remembrance, do we remember anything beyond the fact that people died? Why Britain went into its respective wars? What was gained? What was lost? Was it worth it? Were there lessons to be heeded? Or is the only lesson that they fought for Britain, so the need for justification is superfluous?
If the welfare of soldiers was such a priority for our government, physical rehabilitation and mental health care would be easily accessible for them. Intervention and occupation wouldn’t be a key plank of this country’s foreign policy, and the poppy would be a cautionary talisman, rather than an emblem of national pride.
But instead we have a symbol that – despite the beneficent reasons for its inception – now feels indivisible from the apparatus of the British state that is as much about authenticating the present as it is commemorating the past. The legitimate case for recognising the lived experience of those who have enlisted has been hijacked by a need to present militarism as virtuous, making the ways and means with which Britain built its Empire as virtuous.
What’s being raised here is another question that Britain’s body politic continues to defer – how do we mediate with the structures and symbols around which the country’s identity coalesces: the poppy; the Royal Family; its men’s football teams; the legacy of Empire.
For clarity’s sake, I fully endorse any person’s wish to wear a poppy. But what I endorse even further is a clear qualification of its usage that goes beyond nebulous platitudes. To avoid excluding those with differing perspectives, our collective reasoning for being attached to the poppy’s connotations have to go further than “because patriotism”.
A game between an average football team and a terrible one didn’t need to come to this. But spaces where national identity is forged are increasingly unavoidable. “It’s not whether myths are true or abide by reason that gives them their strength; it’s how they make us feel”, wrote Zito Madu.
The main emotion the poppy makes me feel isn’t pride, nor is it shame. It’s sadness. I think of the people who have died, and I feel sad. And when it’s seen as acceptable for the powerful to co-opt the memory of the deceased in this way, I feel sadder still.
 – Remember Sarah Palin’s use of the phrase, “Real America”? Don’t be surprised to see this mindset educed over the next few years by politicians, or the press, to derail any criticism of their respective agendas.
 – What are the odds on a future series of Black Mirror having an episode where those who fail to carry out their national obligations are immediately deported?
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