Modern western civilian life is one comfortably insulated from war – often even from security or military affairs. Today’s twenty-year-old university students will have lived half their lives in ‘wartime’ – the impact for many so distant it goes almost unnoticed. Excepting Germany’s Wehrdienst, conscription in the West has disappeared, bringing popular direct involvement with national militaries to phenomenally low levels.

On one hand, we find a cause for optimism. Our era is one of free trade, of globalisation and the shared values of individual rights. In Britain, a small body of professionals defends the nation by air, sea and land; our outlook so comparatively secure that a larger defence establishment seems needless. Even in science fiction, another European war seems absurd.

Historically speaking, even amid economic recession, these are idyllic times; accordingly November 11th’s importance can only rise. It underlines a sombre lesson for a de-militarised society. In short, our liberty and prosperity would never have been secured without the bravery, determination and steadfastness of generations of Britons in uniform. But for luck and circumstance, those men and women could have been us; the honour due those that never returned home is inviolable. Bitter politicking stays apart from it: respect for the fallen must forever stay sacred.

…it says merely to British soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines: thank you…

For many the poppy, the parade and the Last Post are a fleeting connection with the armed forces. But they make for a solemn and proper one, absent jingoism and pomp. Far from a glorification of militarism – any rational assessment shows otherwise – it says merely to British soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines: thank you.

But Daniel Cooper, ‘Acting President’ of the University of London Union, thinks otherwise.

…a convenient socialist tick-box…

Cooper, elected by 0.06% of the University of London’s students, attracted widespread condemnation last week. Presumably in a now-backfiring publicity stunt, Cooper refused to lay a remembrance wreath at the University memorial service as the Union President, explaining his decision through his Vice-Presidential blog. Even the briefest of inspections finds childish misunderstandings of history; class-warfare distortion of remembrance and, ultimately, a shameless attempt to hijack a profound national gesture for political ends.

Confused in structure, content and direction, Cooper’s self-justification transforms partway through into a crudely simplistic exploration of the First World War. Dismissing the vast complexities of early-20th century diplomacy, strategy and politics, the Great War is quickly consigned to a convenient socialist tick-box. Contrary to evidence, reason and mountains of scholarship, Cooper declares “The war wasn’t an act of… self defence from despotism… It was a scramble for colonial possessions, markets and resources.” On this dubious basis, he proclaims November 11th is “an insult to those sent to die, victims of the self interested advancement of the British Empire.”

They are robbed of respect; of the meaning behind their struggle…

Thus, with stunning cognitive dissonance, Cooper arbitrarily dismisses the honour due Britons killed in Dunkirk, North Africa, Burma, Korea, the Falklands, Bosnia, Basra and Helmand. November 11th, we are told in all seriousness, is about glorifying half-forgotten anachronisms – not the commemoration of the dead.

At points, remarkable (if likely unintended) comedy shines through. Apparently “Before 1914 there had been no major war for a century” – a great surprise to this student of war and history. But, the humour of a half-baked historiography fails to drown out the altogether more insulting element of Cooper’s diatribe. His narrative condemns soldiers of the Great War to the status of victims and dupes. They are robbed of respect; of the meaning behind their struggle – and the simple dignity of a death without being used for the sake of insipid student politics. Indeed, he bemoans that ‘alternative’ remembrance narratives are ignored – including post-war organisations that excluded officers as members. The arbitrary exclusion of valiant young infantry officers, or their counterparts that patrolled the Atlantic is, apparently, something to look on fondly.

…one ill-considered gesture…

Student politics’ trifling turnouts are less a topic of derision than a norm – the hustings of ULU’s 2012 presidential elections drew twenty-six people. But, if the cause were ever in doubt, Daniel Cooper sealed it. With one ill-considered gesture, he confirmed that student politics is a private preserve for out-of-touch, inbred radicalism; an echo chamber dominated by a tiny leftist minority, apparently wholly ignorant of the world outside. In there, snubbing Remembrance Day may be a laudable blow against repressive militarism, but the rest of us students – irrespective of politics or background – can see this for the terrible disrespect it truly is.

Just as bad is the chance that we, as University of London students, will be tarred with the same brush. Our supposed representative’s decision shares the characteristics of other embarrassments foisted on us by ‘student leaders’ – but it is already clear students no longer accept such short-sightedness and stereotype dogmas. Articles, letters and facebook groups in protest of the ‘Acting President’ proliferated widely within days. At the time of writing it seems likely more people will join a group demanding Cooper’s resignation than actually voted for him.

That he had the right to do as he did is not in question. But it drew perhaps the most attention that ULU has seen for some time – most of it negative – and Cooper should act accordingly.

About The Author

As a student of War Studies and History at King's College London, politics and key events – both past and current – have always fascinated me. Inspired to engage with political ideas by my interest in foreign languages and cultures, I seek to approach and analyse current affairs with a distinct and challenging perspective.

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