I agree with Harry Leslie Smith. I too am increasingly disinclined to wear a poppy. The thing is that the nature of national remembrance has changed. For the first 60+ years after it began it was personal for pretty much everybody. Well over a million British soldiers and civilians were killed in the two world wars. Almost everyone therefore had lost a friend or family member. And everybody knew old soldiers who remembered the horrors of war and often still bore the mental and physical scars. But this is no longer the case. Almost nobody under the age of 90 fought in World War II. For increasing numbers of us, war is no longer personal: our grandparents who suffered in it have left us*. My personal ties to war are confined to the death of a great uncle at Ypres and two friends who
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I agree with Harry Leslie Smith. I too am increasingly disinclined to wear a poppy.
The thing is that the nature of national remembrance has changed. For the first 60+ years after it began it was personal for pretty much everybody. Well over a million British soldiers and civilians were killed in the two world wars. Almost everyone therefore had lost a friend or family member. And everybody knew old soldiers who remembered the horrors of war and often still bore the mental and physical scars.
But this is no longer the case. Almost nobody under the age of 90 fought in World War II. For increasing numbers of us, war is no longer personal: our grandparents who suffered in it have left us*.
Of course, there are many for whom this is not the case, who remember friends, husbands and sons killed in the Falklands, Iraq, Ireland or Afghanistan to name but a few. It would, however, be intrusive and even abusive for me to pretend to share their grief – which of course they bear every day, not just on Sunday. I respect it and sympathize with it. But it is their burden, not mine. To pretend otherwise is a con, a narcissistic flaunting of ersatz emotion.
One or two generations ago, Remembrance Day was about strong people struggling with horrors and grief we cannot imagine. For some, this is still the case. But for many others, it is a display of emotional incontinence.
There’s a paradox here. Although the memory of war is becoming different for us all, there are increasing pressures to conform by wearing poppies: those who refuse to do so, like James McClean or Charlene White, face abuse**, some of it racist. And this, I suspect, is deeply hypocritical. How many poppy fascists support benefit cuts for ex-soldiers and piss on the addicted homeless ones? It is abstract dead soldiers they claim to respect, not real living ones.
Of course, remembrance is not just a personal matter. There is such a thing as collective identity. We can remember our dead as a nation even if many of us individually have no memory of specific victims of war.
But here again, there are hypocrisies.
One is that Remembrance Day is linked with nationalism: how many union jacks will we see on Sunday? And yet it is nationalism that contributed massively to the deaths of those we claim to remember.
Another is that war is not some tragedy that befalls us by unavoidable accident. It is the result of policy error. The error might be the direct one of choosing to go to war, as in Iraq. But it’s also due to a failure to deal with the complex causes that led to WWI or to the rise of Hitler. If there had been better economic management – less harsh reparations, no hyper-inflation in the early 20s, no Great Depression – we might not have had Hitler and WWII. Von Clausewitz was right: war is the continuation of politics by other means.
It’s sometimes said we should wear poppies with pride. We should, in the sense of having pride in those who served their country. But we should also wear them with shame – same at the political mistakes that led to those wars.
Memory, if it is to be anything more than an empty gesture, must mean learning. The lesson of our war deaths is that politics is a deadly serious business. It is a job for serious people who must avoid egregious errors.
This, of course, is a lesson we have not learned. The Chilcot report describes how the errors leading to the Iraq war were ones which should have been well-known to anybody with a passing knowledge of decision theory. And the BBC executives who enforce poppy-wearing to the extent of expecting contestants on Strictly Come Dancing to wear one on their gym kit also give us TV shows in which politics is just fact-free banter between men who went to the right schools. They persist with the Old Lie, that politics a game for jolly good chaps in which – notwithstanding the imbecilic martial metaphors – the stakes are low. It’s not just our war dead who prove this to be an illusion: so too does Grenfell Tower and the thousands killed by austerity. And yet our rulers and media don't heed the message.
Now, none of this is to say we should not have public commemorations of the war dead. We should. My problem is that these have been taken over by hypocritical posturing.
* Not that it was all suffering. My grandad – like many I suspect – had quite fond memories of the war.
** Not, I suspect, from old soldiers themsleves. Whenever I give to British Legion collectors but refuse the poppy, I sense a respect for my decision.
The picture is of 603 crosses in Oakham churchyard, one for every Rutlander who died in WWI.