It’s Armistice Day, 98 years after the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, and people around the world are remembering their war dead.
I want to use the opportunity to talk about nationalism, if I may.
I’ve not worn a poppy for a couple of years, after wearing it staunchly for several before that, because I’ve come to think that its original bipartisan purpose of remembrance has…shifted into something else.
By way of illustration: the English and Scottish football teams recently got into a bit of a spat with FIFA as to whether over whether they should be able to wear poppies on their armbands during football matches.
The argument turned on whether or not the poppy was a political symbol, which FIFA bans from players’ clothing. The English and Scottish teams, naturally, were scandalised by FIFA’s implication; which is telling, I think. Because the poppy is, self-evidently, a political symbol.
Originally, I think, it was a bipartisan symbol of grief: grief for a nation that lost an entire generation of young men in just four years, and then did it all over again twenty years later. But as the last survivors of even the Second World War die off, and that national tragedy fades from living memory, that narrative has changed. We no longer speak of the dead but of the fallen. We tell stories of Our Boys, our heroes who sacrificed themselves for their country, passing on the torch to us so we might be free.
Here’s another narrative, one that never gets told on Armistice Day:
The millions dead in the First and Second World Wars were not heroes. They were young people with their lives ahead of them, ripped from their homes and sent out to die on muddy killing fields by generals who didn’t understand trench warfare. Some may have fought for their country, but many would have fought only because they had no other choice: conscripted into a fight that was, particularly during the First World War, not theirs, facing death by enemy if they went into battle and death by their own officers if they refused.
Many of the war dead were civilians. Many (of course) were enemy soldiers, neither more or less to blame than their opposite numbers. Many were part of the Chinese Labour Corps, shipped over by the Allies to perform menial tasks in degrading conditions.
Of course, millions of people wear the poppy in November, for a whole host of different reasons, and I’m not saying that everyone who wears one is a raging nationalist. But the narrative around the poppy, the narrative of sacrifice for the greater glory of England, is very useful to the far right; and as such the rhetoric around the poppy is intensely political. I doubt the English and Scottish football teams were concerned about memorialising the French or German or Russian war dead; they saw FIFA’s “ban” (note the loaded language with which that story was told, by the way) as an insult to Our Boys and thus to England itself. Their failure, and the failure of others who objected to FIFA’s ruling, to see that the poppy has political implications, whether or not they themselves were planning to wear it for political purposes, looks very much like a failure of empathy: a failure to see what the poppy and its nationalist connotations means in a global context; a failure to look beyond our own small corner of the world, our own outrage, into the thoughts and feelings of others.
And so, by a roundabout route, to Star Trek Enterprise. Broken Bow is the first episode of the show, which is set at the very beginnings of Starfleet: the first human deep space explorers set out in the starship Enterprise to, um, explore. Their departure from Earth comes about when a Klingon crash-lands on the planet and is shot by a farmer; Our Heroes (who are more or less interchangeable with any Star Trek cast ever) decide, against the advice of the Vulcans who actually know what the galaxy is like, to return him to the Klingon planet instead of leaving him to die as Klingon culture dictates they should.
Essentially this is equivalent to sending a North Korean deserter on a plane back to Pyongyang, but nobody points this out (apart from the ever-gloomy Vulcans) because “Humans have values!” as the Enterprise‘s captain says in a Richard III moment. And there it is again: that failure of empathy, that failure to remember that not everyone thinks as you do. Firstly, when he says “Humans have values,” he actually means, “Americans have values”, which, considering Americans just elected a racist homophobic rapist to the highest office in the land, is not exactly a ringing endorsement. And secondly, no-one seems to notice that “Klingons have values” is a just as valid retort to that statement; on the contrary, the Klingons are supposed to be grateful for their actions. Because the American way, because it is “our” way (“we” being the writers and presumed audience for Broken Bow), is automatically the most important and best way.
The world has never been more divided than it is now; not even, perhaps, when the armies of Europe squared off on battlefronts that stretched for thousands of miles. If we’re to repair these divisions, we have to start looking beyond our own noses.