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poppies

It’s that time of year again. What used to be a time of sombre remembrance seems, with each passing year, to now be a time for various groups to hijack a fortnight for political purposes.

From Jonathan Jones’s piece in the Guardian criticizing the aesthetics (with a small dig at nationalism) of the Tower of London art installation to various raging debates in the mainstream and social media about the perceived reasons for wearing a poppy, the colour of said poppy and Britain’s colonial history, one can draw the conclusion that no-one’s really sure just what the remembrance period means to everyone.

And that’s the point. It means different things to different people. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s good.

The poppy as the manifestation of the remembrance period has been around since 1918 and it has since co-opted all those who’ve given their lives in wars since. WWII, the Falklands, the Gulf wars, Afghanistan, etc. And these later wars is where the issue incubates.

As time passes and people are less directly connected to those who fought in the World Wars, (the last WWI veteran in the UK passed away in 4 years ago) more emphasis is placed on the more recent wars. Whilst there aren’t many people who assert that defeating Nazism wasn’t the moral thing to do, more recent wars seem to be a lot less clear cut from an ethical point of view.

This muddies the water disproportionately. I guess that most people, when they buy and wear a poppy, are thinking more of the millions who died in the World Wars to allow us to live in a liberal democracy, more than the few thousand Brits that died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (a tragedy to the effected families though this undoubtedly is).

War, even against these evil ideologies, is a ghastly, inhumane venture and it’s right that it’s the armistice we remember rather than victory. No-one won either of those wars. The allies just lost less. Ghastly and inhumane they may be, but occasionally necessary they are. Leadership in those times are often heavily criticized (as is one’s right in a liberal democracy), but having the courage to take the least worst option is something that, thankfully, most of us won’t have to experience.

It’s for those people now criticizing the remembrance as a glorification of war or jingoistic excess to themselves remember that without the sacrifice of those millions of conscripted soldiers, they would not now have the right to express the opinions they have. And for those that think the poppy is a government instrument to give implicit approval for future wars….. well, it’s the kind of thinking that logically ends up in Russell Brand / David Icke / 911 denial country.

As the poppy enters the moral maze (sadly), here are my helpful rules of remembrance:

  1. Never judge others on whether they are wearing a poppy. Unless you are willing to engage in intellectual dialogue to find out the reasons, don’t make assumptions.
  2. Remember that no-one ‘won’. The UK just lost ‘less’. ‘Less’ is > 1 million dead British people.
  3. Respect the veterans. Whichever war they fought in, they were doing their duty and following orders. They didn’t instigate any conflict.
  4. Your right to remember doesn’t trump others’ rights not to. Remembrance is an act of conscience and as such is a personal matter. It should be enough that you are following your conscience without everyone else having to.
  5. Dissent. Apply rule 4 in reverse, but dissent all you like. It’s your right. However, if you want to dissent AND have intellectual honesty, at least remember those who made the sacrifices to give you the aforementioned rights.