Kenny MacAskill: We are glorifying war, so I’ll not wear a poppy

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The ceremonies to mark the centenary of the First World War have been a procession from one battle to the next; a more accurate description of the realities of war is to be found in A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, writes Kenny MacAskill.

This year, I put money in the collection box but declined to take a poppy, and it was with a heavy heart. For, as the First World War’s centenary is marked, whilst I’m happy to contribute to the welfare of those who’ve suffered, I increasingly despair at the glorification of war.

In Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, Ewan Tavendale, seen in the 2015 film, is brutalised by his experiences in the First World War and his wife, Chris Guthrie, later receives news he has been executed after deciding to leave the fighting and go home (Picture: Hurricane Films/Bfi Film Fund//Iris Productions/BBC Scotland/The Kobal Collection)

In Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, Ewan Tavendale, seen in the 2015 film, is brutalised by his experiences in the First World War and his wife, Chris Guthrie, later receives news he has been executed after deciding to leave the fighting and go home (Picture: Hurricane Films/Bfi Film Fund//Iris Productions/BBC Scotland/The Kobal Collection)

When the conflict started Tom Johnston, who would go on to become Scotland’s greatest ever Secretary of State, railed against it in “Forward”, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) supporting paper that he had founded and edited.

He wrote it was “a cause in which we have no interest, in which we were never consulted, and from which no conceivable result can we derive any advantage – only starvation, hungry children, crying in the streets, bones lying in the battlefields, widows, orphans, tears”.

When the guns fell silent a century ago this Sunday, as far as I’m concerned, he had been proven correct, millions had died neither for a better life for them and their family nor to end all wars as others had hoped. That torture was compounded by returning not to a land fit for heroes but instead, for many, to unemployment and poverty. During their absence fighting supposedly for their country, poverty and poor housing had been endemic for their communities and so it would continue, despite the huge sacrifices made.

I had therefore hoped that the Great War’s centenary would allow for analysis and reflection, as well as, rightly, for commemoration of the dead and the suffering endured, for some consideration as to why it came about, though I wasn’t naïve enough to think it might result in some condemnation of those leaders that took us into it.

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Likewise, I hoped that as well as those who suffered and fell doing their supposed duty for King and Country, there would at least be some recollection of those who bravely opposed it and even refused to serve in it.

Similarly, that, perhaps, as well as the brave feats recalled of those who won medals, whether the Victoria Cross or other honours, at least some passing thought might be given to those who were enlisted but then shamefully executed for what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder.

But, as the four years have rolled by since the centenary of its outbreak, it’s been a slow march from one battlefield to another as each anniversary took place. From Mons to the Somme to Amiens with countless others in between. To be fair, given the scale of the carnage it was right to do so and many ceremonies must have been poignant for the families attending. No less would be expected. The troops were there in their uniforms and the medals were sported as happens as these occasions. It wasn’t distasteful, but it was martial.

However, given the passage of time and the opportunity for historical review, I had expected that some critical analysis might have been applied, if not to balance it up, at least to afford a different perspective, to mark the bravery of those who opposed it and the cruelty imposed upon those who endured it.

But instead, there’s either been none of that or it’s been remarkably well camouflaged by the glorification of the dead with no consideration of the pointlessness of it all. Why did we go to war, for what and who benefited? Everyone knows it wasn’t for the defence of plucky little Belgium and other inanities put about.

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No more in 2018 than in 1918 have we seen any reflection that it was for the interests of the few and not the many, that whilst some speculated and got rich, it was the poor that paid the price. Even in Scotland, the death toll saw 13 out of 14 casualties sustained by the non-commissioned ranks and poverty and even evictions endured by their families whilst they were fighting.

I’ve been even looking and waiting for commemoration of those who rightly and bravely spoke out against it. Johnston wasn’t alone, John MacLean vehemently opposed it and Jimmy Maxton refused to serve in it. To be fair, they were a minority but a significant one nonetheless and their bravery deserved to be remembered.

Throughout these past four years, I’ve been looking for those aspects to be considered but it seems it’s not to be – hence why I’ve declined to place a poppy in my lapel. The whole event has not only failed to recollect vital aspects of the war, but instead given a platform for the continued propaganda of “a just war” and “our glorious dead” when it was wrong and their deaths both tragic and futile.

Thankfully, I reread Lewis Grassic Gibbons masterpiece “A Scots Quair” and there, in one of Scotland’s foremost works of fiction, I got a more accurate description of the war than in all the coverage over these last four years. He eloquently and sadly narrates the tragedy and perversity of it, providing both more substance about it, as well as some solace.

Why did we go to war for Belgium, yet not for the Congo? Any review of King Leopold’s behaviour puts Scotland’s involvement with the slave trade, never mind the Kaiser’s invasion, in context. Among those who were most vociferous in demands for war and enlistment were people who got rich on the profits they made whilst staying safely back home.

In A Scots Quair, a trilogy including Sunset Song, Ewan Tavendale is brutalised by war and is executed because he simply sought to go home. Long Rob is castigated for refusing to serve and after he finally enlists, tragically dies. And then at the armistice service a year or so later, there’s condemnation of the spinners for appearing with the Red Flag but the criticism is muted by the medals they wear.

How perverse that in the almost 500 pages of a work written decades ago, I’ve found a more accurate remembrance of the Great War than these past commemorations.