It’s November in the United Kingdom and that can mean only one thing: the ubiquitous presence of poppies in the public domain. The poppy is worn in the run up to Remembrance Day as a mark of respect to British combatants who have died in War. According to the Royal British Legion, the custodians of the poppy appeal, “The poppy is a powerful symbol. It is worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today and their loved ones.” Despite the overtly nationalistic connotations of referring to “our” Armed Forces, and the implied support of current British combatants, we are routinely told that the poppy is not a political symbol and that it does not imply support or justification of war. We are asked to view the poppy as a neutral gesture of respect to those who sacrificed their lives for Britain.
Although the poppy is intended to commemorate British combatants of all wars, it is most closely associated with the First World War. This makes the poppy a particularly interesting symbol. The First World War occupies an interesting space in British memory. Unlike WWII which is remembered as a heroic victory over fascism, the First World War is commonly viewed as a grotesque sacrifice of young lives in the name of a petty system of International alliances: thousands of young men thrust over the trenches toward their own deaths for a wholly unjustified cause in a wholly unnecessary war. Unsurprisingly, British publics find it difficult to celebrate this mass destruction of life and poppies, in certain respects, have allowed them commemorate those killed in the First World War without feeling like they are validating the war itself.
This year a poppy themed art instillation has been commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The British Royal Legion explains that the instillation titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, will “see 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the Tower’s [of London] moat, each poppy representing a British military fatality during the war.” The installation is intended to serve as a mass memorial that enables people to mourn and remember British loses in a public space. The memorial attracted controversy this week when Guardian culture critic, Jonathan Jones, described it as being “fake, trite and inward-looking – a Ukip-style memorial.” Jones’s article was met with mass public outrage and was immediately denounced in a number of media spaces, with Jones described as a “sneering left-wing critic”. The criticism of Jones’s article claimed that he was trying to tarnish a beautiful remembrance gesture because of his ideological leanings, and because he knew that the controversy would generate interest in his article. In other words, Jones was attempting to politicise a non-political memorial for personal attention.
While I don’t agree with certain aspects of Jones’s argument, in particular his contention that historical accounts of war constitute a form of unmediated truth, it is important to look at the substantive arguments he is making. In his original article and a subsequent explanatory piece, Jones criticises the memorial on two primary grounds. First, he argues that by focusing solely on the British dead, the memorial adopts an unnecessary nationalistic character (hence the UKIP allusion). For Jones any piece of art that aims to commemorate the First World War must remember the dead of every nation because they were all lead to the slaughter by vile governments in the same unjust and unnecessary war. To focus on the British dead, for Jones, is to reinforce the ideal that only the British dead are worthy of commemoration and, thereby, suggest that British justifications for the war were more noble and valid. Second, and more importantly, Jones argues that the war memorial is too sanitised. Jones contends that the First World War was barbaric, ugly and grotesque: a mire of blood, bodies and bones. For Jones, to represent the dead with a beautiful poppy is deny the ugly reality of war and, therefore, make war more palatable and acceptable to the British public; enabling the public to remember the war without confronting its terrible reality. Jones, paraphrasing Wilfred Owen, states that a meaningful war memorial must be as obscene as cancer, a reminder that war is one of the most horrific things that human beings inflict on one another.
Reading Jones’s articles I was reminded of another powerful critique of how we culturally represent war: Theodor Adorno’s oft misunderstood claim that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz. In his 1949 essay “Culture and Society” Adorno writes,
The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation
What Adorno means, in-part, by this difficult passage is that to persist in the production of monuments to the very culture that produced an event as appalling as Auschwitz, is to participate in the denial that the culture we currently live in is an heir to this barbarism. While Adorno is, perhaps, overstating the argument a bit, his contention has a lot to teach us about the poppy memorial and the appeal in general. The poppy memorial serves as a means for the public to celebrate the heroism of war and the noble sacrifice combatants have made in the name of the British nation. It allows people to celebrate the virtues of the First World War without negotiating the unpalatable baggage raised in Jones’s articles. Yet, as Adorno implies, this reification of combatants’ heroic sacrifices bolsters the type of politics that allows governments (and publics) to send men and women to kill and be killed in various wars. Rather than confronting the public with the horror of violence, we allow them to continue celebrating the sanitised symbolism of combatant heroism. In other words, we allow the ideals of valour and nobility that enabled First World War politicians across Europe to send young, primarily poor, men to a bloody end in some squalid trench to remain fundamentally unchallenged. This, in turn, helps to encourage another generation of young Britons to view war and violence as an admirable aspiration rather than a deadly burden.
Jones, however, is wrong in his proclamation that war memorials must be bloody and grotesque. Tucked away in the corner of the main exhibit of Manchester’s Imperial war museum is a poignant memorial to Auschwitz’s dead. The memorial is quite simple: stacks of luggage piled toward the exhibit’s high ceiling. The memorial is similar to the poppy motif, in that each piece of luggage is intended to symbolise a victim lost to the camp. But the luggage, unlike the poppies, does not stand in place of the victim. The luggage is not attached to named individuals because war has erased their names and their very personhood. The luggage cannot stand in place of Auschwitz’s victims because these individuals can never be reclaimed. Instead, the luggage represents this absence that can never return: it waits forever unclaimed gathering dust. The memorial is not bloody or grotesque, but neither does it offer us cathartic release of the tower moat. The luggage is empty, it is like us the audience, devoid of understanding and comprehension of why and how we could let such horror happen, awaiting some soothing explanation that we know, deep down, will never come.