Last Sunday I walked past the Tower of London with friends from abroad. What we saw there compelled (rather than inspired) a lap of the place out of us. Half of the old grassed over moat was filled with ceramic red poppies. Their green stalks being driven into the ground by flocks of volunteers, including army cadets and children.
At certain points the flowers had been stuck to the walls in thick streams, giving the impression that blood was cascading from the arrow-slits and battlements.
At one end of the moat, not far from the Traitors Gate, the stalks had been graded longer and longer to give the impression of a wave breaking over the wall which now blocks the old channel. I characterized it as an idiotic tsunami of blood.
Cringeworthy for the right-minded. Doubly embarrassing when your visitors are in town from Bavaria.
The moat of the Tower of London, I was later told, was where eleven German spies were executed by firing squad. One of them was commended in curiously admiring, rather British terms as having behaved like a gentleman during proceedings. My week has careened from execution to execution.
The war those flowers recall quieted – at least, for Europeans, for a while. Its aftermath saw the Middle East chopped and altered to suit the victorious nations. Today a new tide, replete with actual blood, is washing away those old borders.
War mutates constantly and echoes on. In the case of the poppies, the Great War was being robbed of its savagery – sanitized and re-branded into a tasteful display of patriotism. Unmentioned in it all is that that war spilled into a Great War 2.0.
In a similar vein – and exercising a little hindsight – we might look at Iraq, Syria and ISIS and the broader context of what it happening there.
Taliban 2.0, al-Qaida 2.0 and so on have all appeared and spent time at the top of the crisis jargon lexicon. Each was cast as more vicious, intolerant, apocalyptic and, to use Cameron’s latest flourish, “generational” than its sires.
The US answer is not just to fight Iraq again, but to fight it – some hawks (while affecting hand wringing) even admit – on the basis that we are obliged to because we blew it last time. A war to end wars. Again. Or an anti-war war. Albeit with a good smear of the old humanitarian jam. Meaning much reference to the poor, trapped Yezidis who have suddenly become a concern.
ISIS and the Islamic State, whether we like it or not, was forged by and under American occupation and American bombs. That they are too mad even for al-Qaida’s taste is also a nod to US power, which finds itself looking on in (probably genuine} shock at the enemy it craved and pretended was hiding under every rock after 9/11. A whole new nation of rabid terrorists.
And so we find ourselves at a juncture where empire is trying to resolve its own contradictions by repeating precisely what got us here. After we moved on from the Tower, we took a Thames catamaran west and then east. Then a tube on to a hipster-infested East London pub. Where we smoked and drank and planned for a Christmas in Stuttgart.
And I thought on how and when and if our streets might run red again like the moat or like 7/7. And how we’d have nobody to blame but our rulers.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit