Robbie Travers – Executive Director
Perhaps one of the most emotive and divisive issues of the year finds itself focused around the late October, and very early November period, leading up to Remembrance day on the 11th. That highly emotive question of “Whether you should wear a Poppy?” has this year been the battleground for a large period of prominent debate in the mainstream media. For many, there is no question that wearing a Poppy is the ultimate respect for those who gave their lives for others and not wearing a Poppy is a mark of disrespect. However, many others would vehemently disagree, calling the almost ubiquitous poppy the symbol of imperialism, as it perpetuates a notion that war is a reality not a choice of governments, and it glorifies war.
I feel I should make something clear: wearing a Poppy is a personal choice.
Many would disagree with me here, and say that those who don’t wear a Poppy should not be allowed to do so or even furthermore, should be forced into doing so or conversely, many others believe that wearing a Poppy is an oppressive symbol of imperialism and hence must be resisted.
But I say that both points of view here miss the fundamental point of the Poppy and what it symbolises. We must not only remember the dead of who the Poppy denotes remembrance for, but also the notions for which they fought. In Europe, certainly in WW2, the UK, her allies and many others, both nations and peoples, fought against the ultra-nationalistic forces of fascism, hyper-patriotism, communism and authoritarian regimes. It’s not just WW2, but in many conflicts, ranging up until the recent Iraq war and intervention in Libya, we have fought against authoritarian regimes: we remember those who fought for freedom in society.
Freedom of speech is a crucial element in any society and it is often the protection of this enshrined ability that is a crucial element in many of the struggles of which we have participated in over the last century and in this millennia. Without such ability to protest and have freedom of speech in a society, said society risks creating an insular mono-culture, free of both external and self scrutiny and importantly devoid of suggested ways to progress that is tantamount to societal stagnancy and authoritarian leadership. An authority above questioning goes without scrutiny or examination that dictates and controls moral, ethical, legal and political thought is an extremely dangerous form of society.
“An authority above questioning goes without scrutiny or examination that dictates and controls moral, ethical, legal and political thought is an extremely dangerous form of society.”
People therefore must have the right not to wear a Poppy in my view: we cannot force these people to wear it, as it goes against our fundamental beliefs espoused by our society to do such, but not wearing such a Poppy is in my view an ill-considered choice of protest. Poppies represent not only the men and women who perished fighting for essential rights to freedom, but also the very paramount notions that lie behind our opposition to totalitarianism. Hence, the argumentation made by those not wearing a Poppy that the wearing of a Poppy’s is some form of authoritarianism is a deeply suspect notion, one I must oppose.
The Poppy also arguably denotes imperialism and glorifies war, but this objection, as an interventionist, is something I struggle to understand. Poppies are intended for remembrance: it’s not just remembrance of men and women, but of the mantra of “never again” shall we allow such awful tragedy and human costs to befall our race. Poppies aren’t nationalistic or even imperialistic. Poppies aren’t meant to denote that nations clashed: they are meant to represent the men and women who lost their lives in struggles. The Poppy isn’t about remembering any individual nation’s or group of nations’ dead above others, it is about remembering the magnitude of destruction brought upon humanity by war. Poppies are actually an intrinsically anti-impearlist notion: they denote our appreciation for those who fought to make the world a better place regardless of the flag for which they fought, and our sadness for those who lost their lives in the tragedies that are war. They show the dangers of imperialism, and the damage it can cause.
“The Poppy isn’t about remembering any individual nations dead above others, it is about remembering the magnitude of destruction brought upon humanity by war.”
Of course, wearing a poppy is also a great equaliser. How so, you may ask?
Because so many people wear it, regardless of position or status within society: caterers, nurses, the Prime Minster, Newscasters, the Queen, cleaners, priests, school pupils and bank managers. The Poppy makes everyone consider that all who lost their lives, those who lost love ones, or were injured physically and emotionally are flesh and blood, just like myself and yourself. Poppies are in themselves asking us to be mindful of the human cost of war, and they make us appreciate that wars often take lives of people regardless of wealth, status or religions.
Continually, many are vocal about their feelings that mass commemorations are somehow a glorification of war and that they give honour to something that should be fervently opposed. They also believe that the dead had their lives taken by war, they didn’t make a sacrifice, but I find both of these suggestions tired and irrelevant. There is nothing glorifying about suggesting that war has a heavy cost, rather, I find Poppies are a criticism of conflict and skirmish, and a very strong criticism at that. By having such large remembrance events and making mass commemoration such a prominent, nation-wide activity, we are showing the true importance of our remembrance of the fallen and our appreciation of their efforts, which deserve nation-wide solemn respect. Regardless of whether you view their lives as taken or sacrificed, the point remains the loss of these lives must never be forgotten. Hence arguing over how these lives were tragically lost is pedantic and semantic amphibology in my view. Simply because you have a differing view of the morality of warfare and casualties within it, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t remember the dead and by not doing so, you undermine the fact that these people tragically were killed.
As an interventionist, I have backed armed engagements on numerous occasions, and many ask how I can do so, while holding such views and wearing a Poppy. Often, I point out, the Poppy is about denoting the values for which many fight, and appreciating the sacrifice of those who fight for a better world and have lost their life, to me, is an integral part of being an interventionist. While I wear the Poppy, I remember those who have fought and truly appreciate their sacrifice. I am not a flippant warmonger, but in wearing the Poppy, I am also remembering lives that could have been saved by intervention.
Whether we like it or not, wars are sometimes necessities, or even more importantly, the less tragic option. Look at the situation in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Germany in WW2, our intervention was going to kill people and we were undoubtably bound to lose troops, but our non-intervention would have equally have had an unbearable human cost. Sometimes as a society we must not pretend that inaction is a positive action, but that in many scenarios, we are faced with only bad options, and that taking them doesn’t mean that we did so flippantly. War is something that should not be universally condemned as a fashion choice, but it should be something appreciated for the tragic solemnity of which it represents.
Conflicts are naturally something that many, if not the overwhelming majority, will find it unpalatable to support. Yet, does that mean that the fallen in their fight haven’t contributed immensely to society, or that no positives come from warfare and their sacrifices? Absolutely not. I find it incredibly revisionist to suggest that war and intervention are solely the tools of imperialism and the war dead casualties of such ideology, rather than also the humanitarians favoured option. Appreciation of those who lost their lives did so to save lives is part of celebrating the greater part of humanity, and wearing a Poppy in my view celebrates this better humanity, the view that one can help many by acting even at the detriment of one’s own being.
When we discuss war, and what it means to us, we must have a balanced, rational and adult discussion, not one that groans from the weight of absolutist and idealistic positions with no appreciation of reality or that sometimes choices that we dislike or that will have human costs must be made. I wear the Poppy with pride to remember those who have died fighting, to remember their efforts, appreciating the horrific human cost of war, but meanwhile understanding the human cost of inaction
When we discuss war, and what it means to us, we must have a balanced, rational and adult discussion, not one that groans from the weight of absolutist and idealistic positions with no appreciation of reality.
Don’t let the Poppy and remembrance of the dead, a worthwhile appeal and notion, become a political tool to criticise war, rather shape the debate around warfare itself, with a critical appreciation around the human costs of war founded on remembrance of the past.