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The Big Debate – Remembrance Day – a civic duty?

“Why I will not pin a poppy to my chest” by Isabelle Acton

I remember when I was at primary school and the prefects would amble through the classrooms clutching a blood red collection tin into which we were told we must deposit any loose change we had remaining from our lunch money in return for a poppy from the box hanging around their necks. It was important to wear one, we were informed, to demonstrate our gratitude for the soldiers that died defending our country. Were it not for them, we would not be living in a free, English-speaking country today.

People are routinely condemned for failing to wear a poppy and for questioning that statement, yet it is one that drips of patriotism; something I’ve never quite understood: none of us chose our countries; it makes no sense to be proud of them. It is telling that we choose to commemorate the death and suffering of soldiers, but not (for example) that of the Indian people when the British Empire colonised their country.

That is not to say that the Wars should be forgotten; they should be commemorated via education such that it is ensured that such tragedies never, ever occur again. But Remembrance Day invariably glorifies the World Wars more than it commemorates them. A poppy is a means of honouring war victims as valiant heroes who fought for our country and for the rights of its civilians; in fact they were misled and exploited by the leaders of the time, doing what they believed was righteous and needful to defend liberty and end all wars, in the meantime being forced to live through unimaginably horrendous conditions. But we are not told to pity them, we are told to celebrate them; we are not expected to feel horror or sadness as we remember, but gratitude and pride.

However their mistreatment by our Government is nothing to be proud of. A poppy is not about pity for the innocent civilians who are the victims of militarism, nor is it about remembering the atrocious horror soldiers were forced to live through in the World Wars; it is about glorifying war and it is about supporting this sickening vision of militarism.

Nowadays, the poppy is furthermore used by politicians as a tool to gather support for unpopular and illegal American wars, more about economy than civil liberty, all under the banner of patriotism. Conflicts that could not be any further removed from the circumstances of the World Wars; there is no national service, soldiers are not misled, nor forced into standing at the front line, nor executed by the state for accumulating psychological distress due to the horrendous conditions that state exposed them to, yet today’s soldiers are mourned in the same breath as the ones that were; the ones that died to end all wars.

Soldiers of course suffer and die today, but no-one ever bothered counting how many thousands of innocent civilians died and are still dying alongside them: what happened to their liberty?

A poppy says that there is a hierarchy of victims; that the heroic soldier is more worthy of remembrance than the civilians that the heroic soldier killed. A poppy feeds the dangerous mentality that anyone who wears an army uniform is a hero. A poppy implicitly supports conflict, and is bound up with a broader militaristic culture in our society which has made war more likely, not less.

A poppy is not about peace.

“A poppy is a mark of respect for the dead” by Stephen Grayson

I don’t believe that anyone should feel obliged to wear a poppy around the time of Remembrance Day and I think that, for instance, the way Jon Snow was treated last year when he refused to do so was outrageous. Any accusations levelled at an individual for a lack of patriotism are potentially dangerous, and historically hold sinister connotations.

That said, there is a reason that we still mark a day of remembrance on 11 November, and a reason that the poppy has remained the symbol of this. The First World War was a catastrophic global event in which millions of young men lost their lives. The phrase “they died that we might live” marks the memorial stones of many of these soldiers, and still resonates powerfully today, whether you agree with it or not.

WWI is now widely acknowledged to have been a disaster, and is not really celebrated as a great victory for Britain: what most people think of is the vast number of lives that were lost, and that is what Remembrance Day is all about. It is not a bloodthirsty celebration of war, rather it is a day to honour those who died in a war they knew little about and had little choice in.

In fairness, this point could be made more of: that our army in that war was conscripted, and that there is validity in the argument that more attention needs to be drawn to the way that young men were exploited and died needlessly. But wearing a poppy, while it does not proclaim these ideas, does not deny them, and it could be seen to be a mark of respect for those who were a drawn in to the conflict. Similarly, people who object to other, more recent wars being incorporated into Remembrance Day should remember that the poppy is not a political statement.

The wearing of poppies is not necessarily a civic duty, in that no one should be pressured into it, or made to feel like a bad person for not doing it, but it does have positive connotations that aren’t detracted from by people not wearing one.

The fact that we choose to celebrate Remembrance Day on 11 November, the day that WW1 ended, means that it is a celebration of peace, not of war; of the people who died fighting, not of the political battles won.

The poppy originally became a symbol of remembrance when thousands of them started growing on the battlefields of the Great War. People have always been struck by the poignancy of a red flower emerging from blood-stained ground. Its use connotes a sombre, serious reflection on the gravity of death in war, and this is something that anyone can engage with, regardless of political opinion.

No one who objects to British military presence in Afghanistan or Iraq would say that the soldiers who have died there deserve to be forgotten, and their lives degraded. Remembrance Day, by its very nature, acknowledges the horrors of war and allows us a chance to put aside our arguments and remember (that is all – not celebrate or glorify, but simply remember) those who have died as a result of it.

As I have said, there should be no obligation to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, but I fully respect and understand anyone who decides to do so.

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