An Annual Enforced Obligation

One of the unanticipated pleasures of middle-age is the discovery that, if I do not seek, I will stumble upon what I need to make sense of what is troubling me. After thirty years of reading, I have enough of a reservoir of referents that I am able to drift up textual tributaries for no other reason than to be open to their possibilities, and I am constantly surprised by how often I collide with timely observations.

I have had such an experience this morning. In an LRB review1 of a new biography of Roland Barthes, Michael Wood says this:

Late in life he notoriously said language was fascist “…because fascism is not the prevention of speech but the forced obligation to speak.”


The forced obligation to speak. It is a wonderful description of a form of social pressure of which I am annoyingly aware at the moment.

Today is the first Sunday after 11th November: ‘Remembrance Sunday’, a day of secular reverence for war. It is marketed as “remembering the fallen,” but excludes, in any honest way, the recognition of the slaughter of non-combatants: 70% of ‘the fallen’ in wars since 1918. It is a celebration of militarism, homo-erotically focussed upon the ‘sacrifice’ of the belligerents in war, and, more narrowly, the belligerents who talk like us, look like us, or, second best, defer to us.

I have not worn a paper and plastic poppy for at least ten years, nor put coins in the collecting tins of the old people in be-medalled blazers, often wearing their berets to assert their authenticity, who sit by supermarket doors for the two weeks leading up to this festival. Apparently, the medals and berets are important these days, as there is quite a large clique of people who have not ‘served’2 but who have adopted the trappings of ‘veteran’ status,3 in order to be a part of this newly-ennobled class: the unexamined ‘heroes’ of tabloid myth.

My non-participant status is not a casual or trivial thing for me. My father, who was a regular soldier (not a conscript) for nine years in the 1950s and ‘60s, was a British Legion (the charity which organises the collections and produces the poppies) volunteer and collector throughout my childhood. Although he regards the wearing of medals and uniform knick-knacks as vulgar, for decades, he took his place in Tesco’s draughty doorway, and went door-to-door in his community, and was a secretary for a British Legion branch. For his generation, who grew up knowing the damaged and broken human remnants of the first world war, the sense of mourning, rather than celebration, that was embodied by the Poppy appeal was a very immediate and true thing. His grandmother, Winifred Levy, had a barometer with a glass that was cracked when a bomb from a Zeppelin fell near her East end home. My mother’s father, Capt. William King Churchouse MC, a village doctor, ran a field hospital throughout the first world war, and never recovered from the experience. He died when my mother was fourteen. You can see the London Gazette’s record of his demobilisation in 1923 here,4 in the right-hand column, under the records for the Royal Army Medical Corps.

As a small child during the second world war, my mother watched the bombing of Coventry from a hillside in her village; she has described to me the shuddering of the sky as the flashes of explosion after explosion tore the city apart. I remember the sense of awe I felt, growing up unthreatened (as I then thought) by war, imagining the awareness of the closeness of horror on an overwhelming scale.

That awe was renewed when, working in Southampton around the turn of the millennium, I learnt of the horrors of the Southampton blitz.5

I was appalled to learn about a direct hit upon a public shelter, and that some bomb sites could not be dug out, but were treated as graves. The fact that the city art gallery is a replacement for the original building that was destroyed by another direct hit during a visit by a group of school children, nearly all of whom died, buried beneath the wrecked building, is enough to inspire deep sorrow.

But, my parents are almost eighty, and the first world war was twenty years over when they were born: they were young children when the second world war ended. The first is now history; the second in that curious sense of the past where we know of it more through a previous generation’s obsession than through any real relationship with the events. Still, though, we worship the participants, smoothing out the stories, interpreting them, not as events in their own right, but as mirrors in which we distort our constructions of the current world.

I can remember that the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, in 1995, was supposed to signal an end to national obsession with that conflict. I seem to remember the Queen saying as much, but, six years later, we were dragged into a state of perpetual war by our ‘allies’ and, since then, the mythological weight of the two world wars has been levered into service to justify a new wave of militarism: not the marginalised fetishism of the sad men who adopt a false past of military adventure to fill out unfulfilled lives; not just the ever-present Parolles6 of pub cliché, but the entire state, has revived the exultation of war; the unquestioning adulation of soldiers; the stifling, narrowing language of two-dimensional celebration. And, of course, the war industry, which is already a subsidised golden cow, is loving it.

This was amplified by a new, hardcore manifestation of military ‘charity’: the ‘Help for Heroes’ movement which, while it comes complete with moving story of its founders’ motivations, has manifested, as far as I can see, as a PR organisation for the war industry, campaigning for deification of the military and diverting a huge amount of charitable giving into Ministry of Defence coffers. It is linked closely with the Murdoch Corporation; they are inseparable really, although the Daily Telegraph has the true-believer ardour of the “me too” participant. Its public pronouncements are usually fronted by retired procurement-whore generals making vague generalisations about sacrifice and service. In truth, as numerous scandals have revealed, it has been more concerned with political lobbying and the manipulation of popular perception of warfare than with assisting its client base. Any criticism has been fiercely crushed: the BBC was slapped down for daring to question its expenditure and the rest of the British journalism community seems to have just fallen into line. At a time when government policy has vilified and brutalised disabled people as a whole, ex-soldiers who have been left disabled by their misadventures are an untouchable aristocracy, at least in the media, although a surprising number of stories continue to crop up about them being unable to access practical help when they face difficulties. It’s almost as if all that money, diverted from real charity, was going into someone else’s pockets.

Every year there is some ‘scandal’ about the non-wearing of poppies. Usually it has to do with someone not wearing one on the BBC; it’s a time-honoured dirge. This year, the war worshippers took it to an international level, with a frankly embarrassing constructed ‘row’ about armbands in a football tournament. I won’t rehearse the whole sordid spectacle, but it is worth reading the BBC article7

and clicking on the links: it has all the hallmarks of a classic tabloid moral panic, including a bandwagon-jumping MP, football players and The Sun talking bollocks about a foreign institution.

These moral panics are aimed, of course, at trying to overlay objection to militarism with a taint of immorality. Anti-war is anti-‘hero’. The great problem faced by anyone who wants to profit from war is persuading a country to pay for it, and the moral reversal implicit in the substitution of ‘hero’ for ‘active war participant’ goes a long way to clouding over the objections that reasonable voices might raise to the funding of genocidal foreign adventurism.

Still, there are voices8 who plug on against the military worship,(( but they are scattered and marginalised and, often, they are apologetic, as if they know that they are speaking against the tenor of the mob. They are still able to speak about it, though. But to not wear a poppy:9 that is a difficult position. This year, I have not had the awful “Where’s your poppy?” question, although I have had in the past, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the pressure: the forced obligation of the Barthes quote.

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