Wear your poppy with…shame?

Ah, yes. It is about 30 years to the day that i was out and about campaigning on the back of that slogan. Well: what else would you expect from a fairly brash, idealistic and, yes, naive pacifist and Young Liberal.

My antidote to the persistent publicity around wearing one’s poppy “with pride”, which i felt tended, perhaps unintendedly, to glorify war.

It was gesture politics – albeit deeply felt. The script, of course, was fairly predictable. I would say something like that in a public statement. The local press (Oxford radio and newspapers) would pick it up and run it as a shock! horror! disrespect piece.

Then some old buffer from the local British Legion would amplify the statement by standing up and dissenting. Sorted!

Except said old buffer didn’t quite play fair. We ended up doing a radio debate. The presenter introduced us and put the question to him: “Should we be wearing our poppies with shame?”

I got ready to leap in. Except his simple response more than took the wind out of my sails: “Yes”, he said. “You have a point”.

Huh! Foul! That was unexpected.

Although perhaps i should have been a bit more switched on to the possibility of such a response. Over the years since, i have discovered that the Poppy is not quite the simple symbol I once thought it was.

I have become aware of controversy over its origins: veteran disputes; and the emergence of the white poppy in reply.

I have also learnt that those most ardently against war are often those who have experienced it. In the 1980’s, during debate on the Falklands, opposition to going to war came from an interesting crossbench alliance of members who HAD been to war. Who knew what it was to fight and watch their comrades die.

Contrariwise, those most passionate for war and its symbols are often those with the least experience of it. “The white feather” ladies of WWI, handing out their badges of dishonour to the likes of Siegfried Sassoon (who allegedly accepted one feather with thanks, saying it would “go well with his military cross”).

And now, listening to Question Time, to the radio today, there seems to be a new intolerance creeping into the debate. Not just a reaction to the muslim group proclaiming its intent to burn poppies (they have a point…about the crusades…but i think this is absolutely the wrong tactic): but a much wider reclaiming of the poppy by the Right.

Yep. we’re back to “wearing it with pride” – and this time not with the honest pride of those who fought and died, but with a certain nationalist relish. A certain pressure to join in the respect-showing…or else! Hence the FIFA outrage. Hence all manner of public statements by Tory MP’s about how it represents a national value.

Ugh! No it doesn’t. If the poppy means anything, it is universal in its application.

I won’t, nowadays, be found calling on people to wear their poppy with shame: but i do think, out of a sense of decency, politicians should grow up – and butt out. If anyone truly wishes to go public about poppy symbolism, let the veterans do so.

Not selv-serving (Prime) Ministers, who have never had a shot fired in anger at them in their entire life.



8 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Indeed, much of the media cynically drapes itself in the poppy, manufacturing faux outrage over non-existent slights.

    War is, of course, the ultimate political failure, and the poppy is a symbol of those who have paid the price of that failure—hence the element of shame alongside the remembrance. To use it as a rallying point for thinly disguised xenophobia is the greatest disrespect which can be rendered.

  2. 2

    Shirley Anne said,

    I agree with this. I have a post coming up on Sunday which touches on this sensitive subject (I pre-write many posts) but there is another one I posted last year which is more interesting and you can see it here
    It argues whether we should honour the dead as we do. Most of what we do is of course traditional and we end up being accused of insensitivity if we go against such traditional views.
    I am a bit of a radical myself Jane and very cynical of many things surrounding human nature. You may have discovered that already….LOL

    Shirley Anne xxx

  3. 3

    kathz said,

    I’m wearing my white poppy. as I have since the early 1980s. I have plenty of respect for those who died in battle, even though I’m a pacifist, but my innate bloody-mindedness won’t let me give in to the overwhelming pressure to wear a red poppy, be ostentatiously silent at 11, see poppy-burning as an imprisonable offence, etc. I used to wear a red and white poppy together but the slogans combined with the enthusiasm of war-mongering politicians for displays of red poppies turned a symbol of mourning for the dead into a symbol of support for current wars.

  4. 4

    kathz said,

    Oddly enough I still wore a red poppy in my Young Liberal days – my eventual pacifism was one of the factors that led me away from the old Liberal Party – Trident was a particular concern at the time.

  5. 5

    Wonderer said,

    Brave post, and I’m glad you made it. I do agree that it tends to be those with no experience of warfare who glorify it most, and overlook the sheer horror and brutality of it. And of course no-one alove now can remember those dark dark days on the fields of Flanders which originated that particular symbolism. Warriors nowadays are comparative softies compared to those many – often teenagers – who went over the top in “the war to end all wars” with a high likelihood of imminent slaughter.

    There can of course be heroism in warfare, just as there can be in all sorts of extreme activities where lives are at risk. But war itself is an obnoxious, revolting thing, and the ongoing appetite for warfare and our inabilty to find more adult and civilised ways to resolve disputes is a blight on human progress.

    I’m not sure about wearing poppies with pride – perhaps that should be left to any few remaining survivors. But I do find the notion of wearing a miltary uniform with pride quite revolting; it should always be worn with shame; shame for a humanity which still resorts to brutality. We do;t bring up our kids to behave like that; we try to tell them not to fight over their toys. And the notion of military “cadets” is appalling – a sort of brainwashing of children.

    Nowadays the warriors are relatively safe, and kill mainly civilians. So a military uniform represents a person who has a massive amount of civilian taxpayers’ money spent on ridiculously expensive toys designed to keep him/her safe and to kill other civilians. Nice.

    What I also find horrible is the way the institutional churches tend to have caved in and allowed the self-styled “British Legion” to take over the liturgy and tell us what we should wear in our lapels, when we should be silent, what cod poetry (who the hell was Binyon anyway) to recite, and that we must stand to listen to an arpeggio played on a cornet in our services. We don’t have a remembrance day for the National Union of Miners, or for the Fire Service – two organisations ion which people lose their lives without seeking to kill others. Why should we have one which glorifies warfare?

  6. 6

    kathz said,

    I find it curious that my mum, who served in the ATS in World War II (mainly cooking in Britain, I think) would be entitled to British Legion help while my father would not. My mother was probably in greater danger during the first London blitz bombings, when she had to take her turn on the factory roof watching for bombers and lost friends and neighbours, than in her ATS days. My father, turned down for army service on health grounds, was in the wartime fire service dealing with the effects of bombing and was trained in bomb disposal – pretty risky stuff, I would have thought, but there was no medal for his work and, if he lost colleagues (he rarely mentions his experience so I don’t know) they aren’t among those remembered on Remembrance Day. Nor are the stretcher-bearers or medics who voluntarily risked their lives on the front line unless they were also members of the armed services.

  7. 7

    M said,

    I used to feel much the same. But then the tragedy of all those young men’s lives lost hit me. Ever since I always wear a poppy, not with pride but in sorrow for so many young lives wasted. I wear it in remembrance of their sacrifice, in solidarity. When I visited the cemeteries in Normandy, seeing all the tombstones of young men in their late teens who died on one day, I just feel that for those of us who are alive today and live lives they could never imagine, the least we can do is wear a symbol that we remember what they did, acknowledging that in them the best of us died.

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