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Why some of us didn’t wear poppies this month

November 21, 2015

Around this time of year, a lot of fogies crawl out the woodwork and criticise other people for not wearing red poppies. I am one such heathen, and here I will explain why. As I do so, bear in mind that the symbolism of poppies periodically changes, and different people have different perceptions. When I was growing up, it and two minute silence were supposed to reflect losses from the world wars. By the time I had reached my late teens, it seemed that they were being used to represent and support all British soldiers. I should also preface this by saying that I don’t have an issue with people wearing poppies – only people who directly or indirectly compel others to.

It indicates a political lean you might not have.

Wearing a red poppy aligns you with the view that WWI was the necessary war, as opposed to a pitiable example of human conflict and a waste of life. People in academia can’t even agree on to what extent WWI was avoidable and what it achieved. Regular people barely think about it or know anything about it, and yet wearing a red poppy automatically puts you in the “necessary” camp – as opposed to the white poppy, which does not. It doesn’t seem wise to me to forcibly encourage a culture of unquestioning alignment to an ideology most people have never thought about, nor know the background details of.

If it seems old fashioned to younger people to obsess over WWI, it’s because it probably is – it isn’t discussed or taught the way it used to be. There have been many recent, important conflicts to follow. At some point, the WWI conflict will become as distant to us as the battle of Waterloo. When it does, should we still be wearing poppies? History, and its relevance, changes over time. Insisting on red poppy wearing is in large part a reaction against that, which is not reasonable.

Poppies are nationalistic.

Whether they intend to be or not, poppies are nationalistic. Poppy sellers and promoters make no secret that the red poppy is a symbol of support and respect for British soldiers. Without needing to be baldly anti-war, you can recognise that war is complicated and that we often only take sides with our own country because of patriotism – another word for a mild form of nationalism, a type of prejudice. Thus far, it has always been peace time when remembrance has come around. During peace time, I would like to think that we can recognise that non-British lives lost are still a tragedy – even if they did happen to be on the other side. Wearing a red poppy suggests that you mourn your country’s soldiers, who were killed by the “enemies” but don’t give a stuff about the rest.

The much derided white poppy represents peace, it is said. But this gives the wrong impression to critical people who point out that most people are generally in favour of peace. Instead, we should think of the white poppy as something which represents all the causalities of war, worldwide. The red poppy says: “The causalities of my fellow countrymen matter more.” In other words, the red poppy is nationalistic, the white poppy is humanitarian.

If we’re going to acknowledge war causalities every year, why not civilians?

The armed forces are, ideologically at least, peace keepers; they voluntarily go off to war to protect rights and freedoms. In every incidence in which this is genuinely true, such individuals deserve respect. But the poppy culture is more adulation than respect. I don’t like hearing people talk about “our boys” bravely fighting for us. It smacks of nationalism and also propaganda for war, disguising the sheer amount of death that occurs in it. During modern warfare, it isn’t “our boys” who die in droves. Even when every care is taken to avoid it, there are too many civilian deaths. The ugly truth of war is that everyone nearby gets caught up in it. It doesn’t make sense to every year mourn the loss of Soldiers and their Sacrifice and yet still roundly ignore the realities of war, which includes people who are not soldiers and did not volunteer to be part of a war.

It smacks of a level of nativity about why people join the army.

Above I said that we should respect people who go off to fight for freedoms, wherever this is true. I mean that not everyone who joins the army does so with such worthy goals. People can join the armed forces because they are underqualified, uneducated, underpaid, restless, competitive, or romanticise some aspect of the army life, for example the discipline.

It has been well documented in the liberal media that such people don’t always understand what they’re getting themselves into. Personally, I find that upsetting. When we talk about our brave boys, we ignore the fact that it is not bravery that keeps them in the army. The army traps people in; you can’t walk out on it any time you like and you can be severely punished for deserting. There’s a reason for that; any reasonable person would consider running away from the types of things people see during war. You need some kind of deterrent for desertion, or it interferes with the tactical approach and creates unprecedented risk.

These are nuanced, complicated problems, the ethics of which we should be discussing. Lying to ourselves about why people join the army, and why they stay (namely loyalty to each other, or an inability to imagine their lives outside of the army) means that we can’t educate our young men and women on what it means to join the armed forces and go to war. We are having to rely on partial-fiction, like Hollywood war films based off of memoirs, to teach us these lessons and properly humanise our much elevated soldiers.

Of course, in terms of recruitment, these truths are inconvenient. I state it quite neutrally when I say that army recruitment ads are propaganda; by definition, propaganda glosses over certain truths while exaggerating others. You would expect army recruitment to do that. You wouldn’t expect parents, teachers, journalists, MPs and other people in positions of supposedly unbiased authority to join in. When they’re making a fuss out of poppies, they’re contributing to a culture of half-truths surrounding war.

When we’re praising soldiers, we’re not being critical of conflict.

Every conflict has complex political components that most people don’t understand – civilians and members of the military alike. The presence of our soldiers overseas should make us feel more ambivalent than proud, not just for their safety but because of the general problems with warfare. It’s considered anti-military (not to mention unpatriotic, the ultimate sin) to suggest that one’s country’s armed forces may perhaps be doing more harm than good wherever they are intervening. The soldiers have not chosen to be there and are thus not themselves at fault; but when we suggest that their work is always inherently good, we are implicitly giving our approval to the policies that put them there, when these policies may be faulty. More effort needs to be made to understand the intentions and contributions of armed forces on the ground without glamorising war.

If ex-soldiers need charity, that gives us an important message that we’re ignoring.

Poppy selling is about collecting money. It goes, they say cryptically, towards supporting ex-soldiers. What is it they need – psychological help? Medical intervention? Are there studies to suggest that they become lonelier, restless, more disenfranchised? If any of this is true, we ought to know about it. But those points are obfuscated by the requirement that we feel proud of our boys. If you’re going to say that the public should be grateful for someone’s sacrifice, expect them to want to know what the sacrifice was, and analyse for themselves whether it was worth it.

The vast majority of WWI soldiers are dead. How can they need money, support or remembrance?

The dead don’t care whether you remember them, they can’t be supported and they don’t need money. That raises two questions: what is being paid for, and what is the remembrance for? I think I can answer the second question. Our two minute silence and poppy wearing has nothing to do with the dead, but the living. You can’t disrespect the dead. You can only insult the living. It is living people’s sensibilities that are being offended when one doesn’t wear a red poppy. The obvious question is why. There is no reason to respect the affront of people who can’t explain their anger. Usually, you’ll find the anger personal rather than logical; their X or Y was in the armed forces, etc.

Red poppy wearing is culturally enforced and largely perfunctory.

When social pressure dictates you should do something in order to be a decent member of society, decent members of society tend to do it whether they feel any engagement to the act or not. The two minutes silence was mandatory in my primary school. No child understood it or the meaning behind it. It seemed to matter less than the concept of doing the Correct thing, going through the motions because it’s the upstanding thing to do. This is exactly the kind of Britain that I don’t want to live in. We are allowed to question why we are being required to show displays of concern for issues we have not yet formed a clear opinion on.

Incidentally, I see no evidence that red poppy worship encourages empathy or increased understanding of any war to date. The reason perfunctory charity is a problem is that it makes charity an obligation driven by guilt, as opposed to a genuine wish to help based on empathy. When empathy turns to obligation, we lose our compassion and openness and instead resent whatever groups of people need our help.

There are so many charities that need my attention. Why this one?

Charities that have the most status and power to run campaigns tend to get the most attention and thus the most funding for their cause. The cultural pressure to wear red poppies makes the red poppy charity powerful, which then increases its standing. Comic relief is the same; you aren’t supposed to admit that you ignored it this year. You’re supposed to care with equal passion every year. Meanwhile, many equally important charities are ignored and underfunded. Most people don’t give an awful lot to charity and if they’re paying into one, will ignore the others for the whole year. Perhaps next time we’re all supposed to be wearing poppies, we can redirect our donations into charities which need the help more.

There are so many types of tragic death. Why ignore the others?

Of all the remembrance days, the only one that’s socially compulsory is the Remembrance Day. If you don’t wear a red ribbon on World AIDS day, few people will say you are disrespectful to the families of sufferers. It’s again implicitly suggesting that the deaths of [British] soldiers in combat simply matters more than any other kind of death. This smacks of a dangerous obsession with heroism. People willingly join the army and go to war – that makes them participants and not victims, the way that most charity benefactors are.

The exception to this is when soldiers are conscripted, which does make them victims. This fact is conveniently ignored by people who big up the heroism of soldiers. No other charity uses patriotic pressure to this effect to squeeze money out of people. Of all the tactics used, this one strikes me as the most malevolent; it’s not about the victims at all. It’s about you, and your standing, Your Country and your loyalty.

Either way, people who are victims to disease or attacks strike me as being just as important and worthy of note. With all the victims of cancer every year, and the amount of funding needed to deal with it, you would think that if there was a socially compulsory charity, one that dealt with common cancers would be it. It maintains and gains relevancy, while Remembrance Day slowly loses it. Astonishing numbers of British people die of cancer; seldom do they die at war.

It gives the media too much unchecked power.

Our celebrities and politicians are browbeaten into conformity by the right wing media. We should all have a moral objection to the idea that hysterical slander about disrespectful attitudes can control the behaviour of the majority of high-profile (therefore, powerful) people, regardless of their own politics. Even while giving veiled or open criticisms of the culture, figureheads still feel pressured into abiding by it, and most fold to that pressure. Few make a principled stand against it. And there is a principle here; no one should be held hostage by the partisan press. These institutions that trumpet about freedom of expression contribute to strongly suppress it – it can be called nothing else when completely apolitical people in the public eye feel that they have no choice but to do it the way the papers insist.

So, wear your poppies if it suits your sensibilities, but while we’re all remembering, one thing we should remember is that not everyone has the same sensibilities. I will most likely wear that red ribbon for World AIDS Day – if only because I know most people won’t. Most likely, the won’t know what it signifies, they won’t remember what it means. Would that we could set a cultural precedent for that.

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