As I left home for the Cultures and Commemorations of War Why Remember? seminar in Oxford, I wondered whether I ought to be wearing my poppy. What were the politics of this event? Would it be inappropriate if I didn’t, or would I display blind allegiance to political correctness if I did? That these thoughts passed through my mind is just further evidence of what we already know – what a politically charged symbol that scrappy bit of red and green paper becomes every November. It also suggests I probably have some more thinking to do for myself.
I needn’t have worried. I soon realised that instead of needing to state my position with a badge, this was a remarkable opportunity to have an intelligent discussion with 30 people from all levels of the academic hierarchy – from undergraduates to professors – about the nature of war and remembrance. It was a transnational, intergenerational, gender-balanced interaction. It was deeply refreshing. We were encouraged to think about war in various contexts, with reference to specific examples from the American Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and contemporary conflicts.
Among the material used for discussion, a personal highlight was being introduced to Marita Sturken’s work on the material culture of Ground Zero. Sturken’s chapter (from Tourists of History, 2007) depicts the over-determination of a relatively small geographical area – a site which, as a focal point in the War on Terror, is seen as part of a shift in the culture and practice of modern warfare. She demonstrates too how a substance like dust from the wreckage can be read as both sacred and toxic. Despite the perceived shift in the post-9/11 era, her description of the commercialisation developed around mass suffering is surprisingly familiar, and fed into later discussions about the increase in tourism to the battlefields of the Western Front.
The following day, I approached Remembrance Day differently. I thought more intentionally what others were remembering and whom. I was conscious of the friends who posted images of serene poppy fields on social media, and the majority who didn’t. I remembered the feeling I had as a child, squeezing my imagination to think about the great grandfather I had never met. I remembered that vague sense of national honour, and trying to invest it with personal meaning, and recalled our discussion about the use (or over-use) of personal and emotive narratives in education about the First World War. But more especially, I was conscious that our culture of commemoration in Britain is the privilege of the victors.
I was struck by the words read at the end of the Festival of Remembrance: remembering the sacrifice of those who lost their lives ‘so that we may live in peace’. Hearing those words, I wondered, would we not be at peace now if they hadn’t? What would the geopolitical situation be like now instead? I have of course grown up in a time of peace in Britain, though not without being at war beyond our shores, so is that really peace? It’s not that I haven’t asked these questions before, but the seminar did what academic interactions should do – it sharpened my mind to observe and listen to the world around me.
PhD student in English and History at the Open University. Her research is on Ford Madox Ford’s First World War journalism and propaganda, in the context of Anglo-German relations.