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We will remember them…but for what?

Every year on November 11, and the period leading up to this date, many people around the UK participate in various rituals that aim to commemorate all those soldiers who have sacrificed themselves “fighting for freedom”. The most common ritual of memorial day is wearing the red poppy, a red paper flower, as a symbol of remembrance.

One of the bands that have written songs partially in remembrance of those who died in wars is the British death metal band Bolt Thrower, and the songs I have in mind are “For victory”, off their album For victory (1994), and “Granite wall”, off their album Those once loyal (2005). The opening verse of “Granite wall”, for example, says:

Those that fell today shall be,

in solemn sculpture cast,

always held in reverence,

in memory of the past.

The last two verses of “For victory”, an unbelievable, hauntingly beautiful song, are taken from Binyon’s poem “For the fallen”:

They shall grow not old,

as we that are left grow old,

age shall not weary them,

nor the years condemn,

at the going down of the sun and in the morning,

we will remember them.

These two albums happen to be my favourite Bolt Thrower albums, which I also consider two of the best death metal albums ever made. Bolt Thrower is a band whose lyrical themes revolve almost exclusively around the topic of war. However, they most certainly do not glorify war. On the contrary, they are critical of it and view it as a scourge of humanity, the root of most pain and suffering in our world. When it comes to those two songs, however, I disagree with them because I disagree with what we are supposed to remember. Bolt Thrower seem to omit something from their narrative.

Each person who wears the red poppy participates in a particular discourse. Wearing a poppy has come to signify “gratitude towards those who died so we can be free”. However, this is only part of what happens in wars. This particular framing ignores the fact that soldiers die to protect the political and economic elites’ wealth and power. Soldiers are primarily sent to protect the ruling elites of each nation-state. The political and economic elites do not fight in any wars. Instead they send armies of soldiers to fight for them. Those soldiers come from the dispossessed strata of each society, and they become soldiers because they are forced to become soldiers, directly or indirectly. The status quo can force people to become soldiers by leaving them no other options for earning their livelihood. It can also force them to become soldiers by inculcating in them the idea of patriotism. Patriotism is the fantasy that one is part of such a thing as a “nation” which is exceptional and sacred.

Neither the soldiers of a country on the defensive nor the soldiers of a country on the offensive benefit from war. Both armies are tools in the hands of the political and economic elites in each country. In the end of the war, regardless of who wins or loses, both armies are left in misery. The army of the winning country – the part of the army that survives that is – as well as all those in the lower ranks of society who now secured their “freedom” do not change their destiny. They continue to be part of a system where they are exploited (through exploitative labour, precarious lives, and false needs) while the ruling classes continue “freely” to exploit them.

So, when I listen to those songs by Bolt Thrower, or Satan‘s “Cenotaph” off their brilliant come-back album Life sentence (2013), I do not disagree with their desire to pay tribute to those who died. But I disagree with their failure to acknowledge that those soldiers entered wars that were waged among the ruling classes of different nation-states, who used soldiers for their own benefit. I therefore think that if people want to pay their respects to those who died, they should invent a new ritual that acknowledges that “we will remember all those who were sent to their deaths by the ruling elites of different nation-states who either started wars to increase their wealth and power, or entered wars to guard their wealth and power”. This is a ritual I would not mind participating in.

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