Put away your poppies and remember the victims of British imperialism
Remembering the crimes of a fallen empire in the age of poppy fascism
It’s that time of year again.
Poppy sellers from the Royal British Legion are haranguing people in the street. Footballers such as James McClean and Nemanja Matic are suffering torrents of abuse and harassment for their refusal to wear a red poppy. “Patriots” and militarists of all stripes are coming out in their droves to browbeat and bludgeon dissenters into wearing their favorite piece of paper, and principled socialists of all tendencies are resisting.
The 11th of November this year represents something pretty special. 100 years ago, forces from the British Empire, the French Third Republic and the German Empire laid down their arms, and the imperialist slaughter of the First World War was finally brought to an end. For decades, the line of the red poppy’s more reasonable defenders has been that this, in fact, is what the symbol represents. The RBL poppy, they say, remembers the victims of this effective classicide, the ordinary working men who were sent in their millions to die for the re-division of the world between different imperial powers and their associated industrial-financial cartels. The red poppy doesn’t glorify war, they say, it merely remembers those who died.
According to the Royal British Legion’s website, “the Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them”. On the same page is a link to a page entitled “recent conflicts” — a page which goes on to list conflicts such as the invasion and occupation of Korea by the United Nations in 1950–53 in defense of the American occupation regime, the war and genocide perpetrated by British forces in Kenya, and the occupation of the north of Ireland by the British army from 1969–2005 (among others), as conflicts we should be remembering for the British personnel that were killed fighting them.
It’s important to remember that these British soldiers who died on imperialist escapades in countries various were not, as they are often presented, on a grand quest to spread democracy or uphold supposed “British values”. The vast majority of the wars fought by the British army since 1918 have been colonial wars, fought against movements seeking to liberate their country from Britain’s blood-stained hands. Greatest hits include:
- the Irish War of Independence from 1918–21, Britain’s first colonial war of the modern era. Highlights include the Royal Irish Constabulary (the British colonial police) opening fire on a crowd of Gaelic football supporters at Croke Park, killing sixteen, the sacking of the city of Cork by British regulars and the Black and Tans death squads, and the murders of five Irish civilians, including a sixty-year-old man, by a 19-year-old serial killer and Black and Tan.
- the Korean War, in which 765 British soldiers were killed, approx. three million Korean civilians were murdered in indiscriminate coalition bombardment, and three quarters of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was destroyed by bombing. The atrocities in Korea were carried out primarily by the United States Air Force, but Britain’s significant contribution and diplomatic support for the war meant that Britain and its soldiers bear responsibility for aiding and abetting in the slaughter.
- the genocide of the Kikuyu people by British forces in Kenya. During the “Mau Mau” uprising by the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army in 1952, hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu people were interned in concentration camps or shipped off to reservations where they were starved to death, mercilessly tortured and denied proper sanitation. Outside the death camps, the RAF dropped over six million bombs over the Kenyan countryside in just eighteen months. Bombed areas or sites of massacres were littered with photographs of mutilated women by British soldiers in order to intimidate the population.
- the invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel in 1956. After Egyptian president and Arab socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the British-controlled Suez Canal, Britain and her allies invaded Egypt in order to depose Nasser and re-establish British control in Egypt. Britain was humiliatingly forced to withdraw after the United States threatened to destroy the British financial system.
- The Malayan Emergency, AKA the Malayan Anti-British National Liberation War. Fearful of socialist revolution if they were to simply grant Malaysia independence and be done with it, British forces engaged in a ruthless campaign of counter-insurgency from 1948–60. In “Operation Starvation” (yes, that was its actual name), a herbicide called Agent Orange was sprayed on Malaysia’s crops. Rations were tightened and large amounts of food were deliberately spoiled in a plan to starve out any Malaysians who resisted Britain’s looting of their country. Villages suspected of harboring communist rebels were burned to the ground and roughly 10% of Malaysia’s population, mostly Chinese people, were arrested and interned in concentration camps known as “New Villages”. Torture and mutilation of corpses were widespread in their use by British forces, and in the Batang Kali massacre of 12th September 1948, 24 villagers were rounded up from a rubber plantation and executed with automatic weapons before their homes were set on fire.
- The British occupation of the north of Ireland, otherwise known as the Troubles, from 1969 to 2005 (with most groups declaring a ceasefire in 1998). As Britain’s final colonial war, the Troubles included such joys as the Bloody Sunday massacre, in which British paratroopers opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing 14; Operation Motorman, in which a 15-year-old Catholic boy was ambushed by British soldiers hiding behind a garden fence and shot dead; the internment of Irish guerrillas in the H-Blocks at the Maze prison, where Irish republican and MP Bobby Sands died whilst on hunger strike; the collusion and outright co-operation with loyalist paramilitary death squads who almost exclusively targeted Catholic civilians (it’s estimated that 85% of the Ulster Defense Association’s intelligence came from the British occupying forces), including providing intelligence for such atrocities as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the Miami Showband massacre.
This, of course, is without considering the more recent illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — while in Afghanistan, the British and American governments tried (and failed) to repair the mess they were responsible for by attempting to destroy the jihadist movements they themselves had funded and armed to fight the Soviet Union, in Iraq, British forces were deployed to illegally depose long-time Iraqi despot and former best friend of the West when he was at war with Iran, Saddam Hussein. This, as ever, provided us with a wealth of horror stories, from British soldiers murdering and raping Iraqi civilians to torture inside the prisons of the occupation government.
These are the people that your poppy remembers. These are the men, the perpetrators of genocide, the murderers, the concentration camp guards, the death squads, who are said to have gallantly given their lives for their country. Did these men defend our freedoms? Did these men help spread democracy across the world? Did these men die for the sort of world most of us would like to see? I hardly think so. Those men who died in those conflicts were the gasps and screams of a dying empire, warriors for genocide, authoritarianism, reaction and imperial power. These are the people who are said to have given their lives for our freedom.
Put away your poppy, lay down your songbook, and let your cries of lament for British soldiers fall silent.
This November, weep instead for their millions of victims.