When I started writing this post in my head earlier this week, I thought I was turning into one of those people – you know, the type who always has to have the controversial opinion, the kind of person who’d manage to play Devil’s Advocate in a discussion about kittens, or cake, if they could. Which is a habit that’s just about tolerable if you’re a fresher on a creative writing course, but annoying as fuck everywhere else in life. Anyway – here we are a few days later and it turns out I’m far from original. Who knew?!
This year, I really do think it’s OK to think long and hard before pinning a red poppy to your coat. I’m certainly having Mixed Feelings about it. I can’t actually decide where I stand on the whole FIFA thing; I can totally understand FIFA not wanting any politics on the pitch, and while the poppy isn’t in itself a political symbol, you’re living on another planet if you think it doesn’t get more politicised every year. Then again, if footballers want to take part in a simple act of remembrance, they should be allowed to. If we believe poppy-wearing shouldn’t be compulsory, no-one should really be banning it outright either.
Obviously I’m not disputing that it’s right to remember the people who died fighting in both world wars; of course it is. The trouble is, I don’t think we fully understand what that means any more. If we did understand the proper meaning of remembrance, there wouldn’t be a whisper of ‘poppy fascism’. No-one would be outraged by the fact that Jon Snow chooses not to wear a poppy on television, or that West Brom footballer James McClean doesn’t wear one at all. Poppies would not be used like flags to claim moral high grounds, nor used like darts for political point-scoring.
We are supposed to learn things from world wars. We’re supposed to learn from every conflict we ever enter into. At the end of the years of fighting an “enemy”, when the gunfire has ceased and the explosions have finally, finally stopped tearing people and places apart, we’re meant to resolve to prioritise tolerance and compassion. We’re supposed to look at the names and ages of those who died fighting, think of their families, and silently promise that we won’t let it happen again. Violence solves nothing. Raining bombs on a state in crisis in order to subdue it begets only more terror and bloodshed.
We are also supposed to extend a hand to those displaced by war, and help them find shelter, if we can. Because it is the right thing to do. And because we hope that if we found ourselves in their shoes – coming to the awful realisation that we simply cannot stay where we live, and choosing to remove ourselves before we are slaughtered or weaponised – another country would welcome us. Make us safe. Over the last couple of years, our government has turned a nigh-on blind eye to thousands of human beings who fled hostile hometowns, ruined cities, streets of pain and fear, and only offered the smallest, most grudging bit of help. Which makes it look like we have learned precisely nothing about war. We have never been less tolerant, less compassionate, less willing to see things from another point of view, than we have been this year.
This is why wearing a poppy feels tricky now. It feels like a show, it rings false. When the poppy was first introduced in 1921, the almighty sense of loss and grief were still incredibly raw, the belief that such a war must never happen again was universal, and the little blood-red flower served as a sharp reminder of that. Now though, the poppy has grown roots that, though they are thin, tie it to patriotism and a faint sense of pride (though pride in what, I’m not sure). World wars show us the dangers of too much patriotism and nationalist pride; our acts of remembrance should be the opposite of those things – quiet and introspective. It’s particularly telling that veteran and activist Harry Leslie Smith has been quoted as saying: “Armistice Day and the wearing of the poppy have been not only politicised but also commercialised. It is now almost a month-long dirge of patriotism without context and without understanding the true cost of war.” If anyone’s in a position to make that comment, it is Smith.
In 2016, we do not need another thing that divides us. Another thing that splits us into camps of “those who are patriotic enough” and “those who are not”. Another thing that we just do, unquestioningly, because of our history.
Because it’s our history that keeps getting us into trouble. We’re failing to learn from it. Still.