On the wearing of poppies

Poppies in Bromley

Remembrance of war dead is prominent this year, helped by a very visible campaign by the Royal British Legion and, of course the fuss over whether or not the England Football team may wear poppies during their game this weekend. The honouring of the coffins of dead soldiers by the people of Royal Wootton Bassett has stirred our consciences too. The picture above was taken last Saturday in Bromley High Street. It doesn’t do justice to the moving sight of every tree in the pedestrianised street festooned with commemorative poppies.

I haven’t always been so keen to wear a poppy. In my youth, as a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND,) I once wore a white peace poppy because I thought I was a pacifist. It was a political statement against militarism and politicians and jingoism and rampant nationalism at the time of the Thatcher Government. It drew angry looks and comments from people who had personal memories of war and I politely, if unconvincingly defended my idealistic stance, untainted with actual experience.

There are still people who refuse to wear a poppy on these grounds today, who see the poppy as a highly-charged nationalistic, political symbol which should not be worn at all, let alone flaunted internationally. Conversely, I heard my MP, a military man, swearing that the poppy is NOT a political statement. Given the debates within parliament on this subject, I think this is disingenuous. The poppy can be as much of a political statement as one wishes it to be.

So now the England team are to be allowed to wear the poppy on their armbands. I imagine they will all be constrained to wear it, as, seemingly, are all high profile people at this time of year. NOT wearing a poppy, therefore, becomes a political statement. This is a pity. To me the wearing of a poppy should be an act of individual conscience. It is not for the Government, or the BBC or the FA or British Airways or anyone to tell people which badges of support they should wear, in the same way as it is not for the Government to dictate my choice of clothing or whether I wear a crucifix or a turban or a burqa. Poppy fascism is very real, and I find it alarming. The point is often made that it was those very people we remember with our poppies who laid down their lives in order that we should be free to decide how we conduct ourselves.

My generation, and that of my children, has been lucky enough not to have known war and its privations, and we have become increasingly detached from the real people in situations of conflict around the world. Our young people are not conscripted into the armed forces for national service and those who actually volunteer for duty are as remote and somehow “other” as the people in other countries who have to carry on their daily lives and somehow feed their children not knowing whether they will be the next innocent victim of a sniper or suicide bomber, or of an unmanned, unaccountable drone high in the sky.

As I have matured, I have lost much of my idealism and become more cynical. But the wearing of the poppy for me is no longer a political act. I buy and wear a poppy in order to remember all those who have given up their lives or their health in the service of their countries whether in wartime or in peacekeeping duties. I wear a poppy to remember the generation of young men wiped out for a war with no moral object at the beginning of the last century. And for those men and women who have been killed or injured fighting for freedom ever since then, on whichever side. The proceeds of the poppy sale are used by the Royal British Legion to help the families of those who have been killed or injured in the course of military duty.

Because those in the armed forces are there to do an unpalatable, at times unrewarding, job often in conditions that most of us cannot contemplate, let alone choose. They do their duty, a concept sadly unfamiliar to many in today’s society. We live to please ourselves without being bound by the needs of others. How alien, then, that these people forfeit their safety and sign up of their own free will to be sent to dangerous parts of the world to do the bidding of people who make decisions in the safety of warm, comfortable committee rooms. Women and men who serve in the armed forces, whatever their political opinions, do our dirty work for us while we have the luxury of debate at home.

I don’t see the wearing of a poppy as a political act. It is, rather, in memory of all those who have done their duty for their country. I think we should see the person rather than the politics. Each one is someone’s daddy or sister or boyfriend. Each one is someone’s child.

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