Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
The passing of that time of year again. Oktoberfest, Halloween, Bonfire night – eventful would best describe late October becoming early November. Finally, perhaps the most colourful of these spectacles, Remembrance.
Alternatively, as seen in the last few years, that time when the pragmatic section of the population annually decides footballer James McClean’s (and now seemingly fellow Premier League star Nemanja Matic too) choice not to wear a poppy is the gravest of war crimes, if you’ll pardon the pun. So here are a few lines explaining why this can be a stressful time for public enemy number 1 and number 2, and suggesting why this new dynamic to Britain’s longest debate should be welcomed.
Also around this time 2 years ago NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick shocked America by kneeling before the national anthem. Soon he was joined by hundreds of athletes as “taking a knee” spread across the nation. The reason? A silent but powerful protest against the rooted racism within the US – one of police brutality, a broken criminal system and the injustices faced by minorities. Kaepernick joined the likes of Muhammad Ali, as an icon for American civil rights, but his actions spread far further in bringing to the world’s attention the daily suffering of millions in the “Land of the Free”.
Inspiring as events from across the pond were, the fate of James McClean is quite different. Since 2012 the standard practice of Premier League teams playing in special shirts displaying the poppy has marked English football during the period of remembrance – as has, of course, James McClean’s ongoing refusal to wear them. For Derry-born McClean, his objection is one of affinity for the people of his hometown – he grew up in the same estate inhabited by 6 of the Bloody Sunday victims, unarmed street protesters shot by British soldiers in 1972. His stance was clear: he would personally abstain from a campaign paying homage to wars often leaving controversial legacies of hurt in their wake.
Unlike Kaepernick, McClean won’t be inaugurated into some revolutionary hall of fame. There’s been no widespread media appraisal, no Nike adverts owing to his stance. For his efforts McClean was and continues to instead be met with annual storms of sectarian (and at one instance physical) attacks, family death threats, hefty criticism by the ring-wing press and showers of coins each time he takes a corner kick.
All the more surprising then, that this season Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic (above) joined McClean in refusing to wear the poppy branded shirts. Matic explained that wearing poppies was only a reminder of an attack he experienced as a frightened 12 year-old in his hometown of Vrelo during the NATO bombings of Serbia. Britain took part in these bombings, which allegedly fell far too often over housing blocks and other civilian joints.
I make the connection because the likes of Kaepernick, McClean and Matic have shed light on something which has been deeply damaging to their people. Perhaps generated more from outcries in response and exacerbated by huge followings, their defiance amidst seas of opposition and an awareness of potential career ruin has (intended or not) brought to the table an often overlooked thorn in the side of the official narrative. For Kaepernick, the continuing legacy of a constitution and anthem written by once slave-owners. For Matic and McClean, a foreign policy unable to detach itself from a colonial past.
Are Matic and McClean anti-remembrance? Far from it, and this article doesn’t celebrate them as heroes of our time. Both have rightly gone to great lengths to emphasise their respect for those who choose to wear poppies. I simply argue that equally important is a need to respect and understand their abstinence. Matic and McClean happened to be just two examples of the adverse consequences of many of Britain’s wars – and their familiarity to us hits home how present the problem can be. As does, on a much wider scale, the refugee crises and terror attacks that form an ongoing battle in daily life – caused at least partially by an interventionist foreign policy.
Times are however changing. The sensitive question of “our boys” seems increasingly make-or-break for anyone fancying a go in Westminster. It’s difficult to reflect over the premiership of Tony Blair without uttering the fatal word Iraq, or the million who marched against it. For David Cameron too, his involvement in what Barack Obama described a ‘sh** show’ in Libya undoubtedly played a part in his downfall. His buddies have moved onto pacifying market stalls in Yemen it seems, parliament’s weekly Q&As’ remind us.
In this strange era of anti-war sentiment then, shouldn’t we invite questions to established norms or critique of the status quo, given the stakes, as opposed to blindly shutting them down with labels of “unpatriotic” or “anti-British”? In doing just that – challenging the official narrative – Kaepernick sparked to life a Black Lives Matter movement. The subject of police brutality has never been more scrutinised, both in the US and beyond, and no one with sane mind would characterise these achievements as anti-American or unpatriotic.
Far from being viewed as heinous traitors then, maybe the antics of Matic and McClean should instead be seen as an invitation for discussion?
My great-grandad died at Gallipoli during the First World War. A soldier of an Ottoman Empire then sided with Germany, it’s quite possible that he was killed by a British soldier but, conversely, more likely that he had more in common with the average British soldier than his own commanders. Denying this reality is hard to maintain due to the heartfelt stories of Turkish troops lobbing tobacco over into British trenches in exchange for corned beef hurled back by the Tommies during breaks from the fighting. Or more fittingly the scenes of German soldiers playing games of football with their British counterparts on Christmas Day 1914. Few barriers can stem humanity’s inevitable seep through.
Recounting these without citing the words of Harry Patch, the last surviving solider of the First World War, isn’t possible:
I felt then as I do now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder
Opposition to wars, seen today in the form of Matic and McClean’s poppy stance and tomorrow in another, isn’t and shouldn’t be conflated with disrespect for the troops. To do so is merely an attempt at confining debate critical of foreign policy. In remembering, this can only be encouraged. The eye-opening actions of our favourite household names can only be welcomed as an opportunity for reflection, especially when the official narrative isn’t always so cheery.