Why I’m wearing a poppy again

Once again we’re coming up to Remembrance Sunday, an occasion to remember those who have given their lives in conflicts past and present. This is always held on the second Sunday in November in the United Kingdom, which means that this year it is on 13th November, so that it is close to the date of anniversary of the armistice that formally ended the First World War, which happened on 11th November 1918. Another way to commemorate this  is the observance of two minutes’ silence at 11am on 11th November itself. I plan to do that, next Friday  (which is the 11th November). I’ve kept my calendar free at 11 am precisely for that purpose.

Then there  is the wearing of a poppy. The poppy appeal raises money for veterans and their families, but the wearing of these little red paper flowers is something that not everyone feels comfortable with. Some people think that to wear a poppy is to celebrate militarism or even Britain’s imperialist past. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, if someone asked me to wear a badge to support Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, I’d certainly refuse.

I wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war some time ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about celebrating war or military prowess or imperialism, it’s simply about remembering those who died. In fact, one of the main reasons the paraphernalia of  Remembrance Day observances (the Poppy, the Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, etc) were set up in the first place was to remind not just people but also governments of the devastation caused by World War One. That’s why the Remembrance Day ceremonial laying of wreaths takes place in Whitehall, right at the heart of government. The ritual  was specifically intended to be a warning to the politicians who had brought the conflict about not to allow it to happen again.

As a young lefty student I grappled with the implications of the poppy appeal. The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies, as an overtly anti-war symbol of remembrance. For a time I wore a white poppy but, although I am against war, I don’t think a policy of non-violence would have helped much against Hitler’s Nazi regime and therefore can’t really call myself an out-and-out  pacifist. One year I wore both white and red poppies, but since then I’ve decided to stick with a red one.

Of course many in the Establishment would like the poppy to turn into a symbol of obedience, a kind of alternative national flag. Some people choose not to wear it precisely because it has that implication. The sight of some hypocritical warmongers wearing the poppy at the Cenotaph on these occasions sickens me, but their betrayal does not make me want to stop wearing it myself. Neither does the fact that so many seem to be so contemptuous of the great strides that have been made over the past decades to try to construct a Europe defined by peaceful cooperation rather than by narrow-minded nationalism and conflict. The parallels between Britain in 2016 and Germany in 1933 seem to me to be frighteningly real,  and I fear very much for the future if we carry on in the direction we seem to be taking. All I can say is that I’m glad I’m not young.

People have  a wide range of views about the poppy and its meaning. There is no “right” answer – every person’s attitude is shaped by a number of factors, not least by whether or not they have lost a loved one in any form of armed conflict.  Some of us wear wear a poppy, some don’t. It’s a matter of choice. The fact that we have a choice is important in itself. I would probably refuse to wear a poppy myself if someone tried to make it compulsory.

Some poppy sellers use the slogan  Wear Your Poppy With Pride, but the original meaning  is much better expressed by the original, Lest We Forget. I’m not sure I wear mine with pride at all, in fact. What I feel is really more like shame, at the wastefulness and stupidity of armed conflict. I count myself incredibly lucky that I have never had to live through anything like that, not only because I’ve had a relatively peaceful and comfortable life, but also because I have never been tested in the way previous generations were. I wear the poppy to acknowledge their bravery and to recognize my own good fortune.  When I stand for the two minutes silence I remember those all who fell fighting on all sides of all wars, and  fallen civilians too.

When the newsreader Jon Snow decided not to wear a poppy on TV, there were angry complaints. I’m sure he didn’t mean disrespect to the cause but disliked the pressure being put on him to conform. I can see his point. It has to be voluntary if it is to mean anything at all.  But in the end I agree with Euan Ferguson’s piece in the Observer a few years ago:

I don’t like pressure being put on people to conform. Orthodoxy and fear are always to be regretted and today’s society is over-condemnatory, swift to its manufactured outrage. But this change seems to have come from below, not been ordered by bullies: the daily reports of life and death in the forces, of the danger other 20-year-olds daily find themselves facing. And is the symbolism of the poppy being degraded as it is customised? No. You can’t do much to the fabulous simplicity of this symbol. And the poppy doesn’t preach: it’s not about “right” or “wrong” wars, but about brave dead soldiers. And the message was, never, Remember in the way we tell you to remember. It is, simply, Lest We Forget.

So, yes. I am wearing a poppy again this year. You can decide to wear one if you wish. You can also decide not to.  It’s entirely up to you.  That’s the whole point really. It’s called Freedom.

Lest we forget.

13 Responses to “Why I’m wearing a poppy again”

  1. “The parallels between Britain in 2016 and Germany in 1933 seem to me to be frighteningly real”

    Interestingly, many UK Jews are applying for German passports as a result of Brexit.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t blame them. Most of non-UK EU staff look set to leave in the next two years. One is leaving this month because of Brexit.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The fact that, since the referendum, Britain is more likely than Germany to restrict the immigration of groups known to be antisemitic, suggests that Jews don’t think that there is a serious risk and that their decision is largely economic. But have you a reference please, Phillip?

      If Peter reads the remarkable book The Invention of the Modern World by an emeritus prof of social anthropology at Cambridge who also trained in history, Alan Macfarlane, he may be reassured. The English don’t do extremism, and Macfarlane explains in depth why – the assertion is not just blind or blithe optimism.

      • telescoper Says:

        I wish I shared your confidence that the “English don’t do extremism”. We do, after all, have the EDL and the BNP and we had Mosley’s mob in the 30s. It doesn’t seem to me impossible that the English could be the baddies this time.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Nothing, nothing, nothing is impossible. But it’s less likely than you believe, I reckon, and do give Macfarlane a try. He’s no right-winger.

      • “The fact that, since the referendum, Britain is more likely than Germany to restrict the immigration of groups known to be antisemitic, suggests that Jews don’t think that there is a serious risk and that their decision is largely economic. But have you a reference please, Phillip?”

        I didn’t suggest that it had to do with antisemitism. It is perhaps somewhat ironic, but only if one believes that Germany hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and of course it has. Neither is it largely economic, though of course this might play a role at some level. I think that it is due to not wanting to be cut off from the mainland. The UK was never a significant player in Jewish history, while many countries on the Continent had significant Jewish populations, members of whom often played important roles in the countries’ histories. Add to that the fact that forced emigration put people wherever they ended up. It is understandable that some people who left during the Nazi times didn’t want to go back, and their children, having been born abroad, had no reason to as well. But these days travel is much easier, much cheaper, and the EU (especially Schengen) makes it easy to travel and visit places even if one doesn’t move there.

        Reference? I’ve read several articles about this in various places. People have also told me this personally, but I don’t think it would be a good idea to mention names unless they explicitly ask me to.

        People who were forced to leave Germany during the Nazi times and their descendants can easily claim citizenship in Germany.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think the issue is less to do with specific anti-semitism but more to do with the general xenophobia that accompanied referendum campaign. An Italian member of staff in my current department is leaving primarily because of abuse his family have experienced in the aftermath of the referendum result.

        I know people voted “Leave” for many different reasons but the effect that it has had is that this country is now perceived to be hostile to foreigners. That feeling is widespread among those living here and those living abroad.

      • “I think the issue is less to do with specific anti-semitism but more to do with the general xenophobia that accompanied referendum campaign.”

        Right. Even if the xenophobia (and/or genuine realistic concerns) lead to fewer antisemitic immigrants, this could be a case of the the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend fallacy, and thus shouldn’t be a reason for Jews to stay. Even though there are many reasons both for antisemitism and islamophobia, and even though individuals might have some or all reasons for one or both of these, the fact is that many people are both antisemitic and islamophobic. So, there might be a genuine concern that after other immigrants have been taken care of, the Jews might be next on the list, recalling Martin Niemöller’s wise words:

        First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
        Because I was not a Socialist.

        Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
        Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

        Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
        Because I was not a Jew.

        Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

        Antisemitism tends to be more irrational than islamophobia. Of course, different people define things differently, but considering that Judaism does not proselytize and it is difficult to become a Jew even if one wants to, it it most often not based in fact. Historically, most Jews have been content to mind their own business, not threatening the majority of society in which they lived as a minority, were well integrated, and even contributed greatly to such societies.* There are legitimate reasons for disliking some forms of Islam (mostly, that practiced by those who take it seriously). However, there were certainly many people who voted for Brexit due to general xenophobia rather than legitimate concerns that too many immigrants would endanger the freedoms enjoyed in a liberal society.

        *Hilbert was once asked by a Nazi official how mathematics in Göttingen had improved since it had been freed of Jewish influence. “Mathematics in Göttingen?” replied Hilbert, “There is no more mathematics in Göttingen.”

  2. I like the idea of the PDSA’s blue poppies, for all the innocent animals killed.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    To get a better sense of “lest we forget”, please see the first few minutes of the opening episode of “The World at War” about World War 2:

    Peter has this right about remembrance. A further question is whether remembrance helps it not to happen again.

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