Wear your poppy with peaceful intent
Guardian comment by Ted Harrison
Remembrance was intended to be a pledge that war must never happen again. It must not glorify or sanitise war.
This year I am wearing my poppy with unease. I am happy to buy a poppy, and the money is used well, but I have a niggling feeling, shared by many, that something has gone astray with remembrance.
It seems to me that, these days, wearing a poppy is too often regarded as a test of patriotism. Or, rather, those who don’t wear one are seen as being somehow disloyal to their country – not standing shoulder to shoulder with our troops on the front line. There is also an unseemly ostentation in the way many politicians and some celebrities use the poppy to bolster their images and egos.
Let’s go back about 90 years to when the poppy first became the symbol of remembrance. Almost every family in the country was in mourning. The war had not been a magnificent adventure, as promised, but four years of pointless, industrialised slaughter. In retrospect, there could only be one justification for it: it had been the war to end all wars.
The traditions of remembrance established shortly afterwards conveyed two messages: shared grief and the common pledge that war must never happen again.
But the peace was bungled and, just over 20 years later, the second world war began. In Britain there was little jingoism – only a resigned sense of duty that another war had to be pursued to defend the world from tyranny.
The second world war was, in one sense, a very unusual conflict, in that it had a clear moral justification – something that cannot be said about the first, or many of the subsequent conflicts involving British troops.
So I am uneasy when, at the Festival of Remembrance, a child presents a poppy with the words “to say thank you from children to those who gave their lives so that we can live and be free”. It is the truth, yes, but only a half-truth. We must be more honest about why troops die.
I am uneasy too at the sentimentality of some aspects of remembrance. Perhaps war poet Wilfred Owen’s words should be heard at the cenotaph: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
I am concerned too that the poppy has become a marketing brand. What would the widows of the first world war make of Wednesday’s showbiz launch for the appeal, poppy bling and poppy golf umbrellas being sold, and the Royal British Legion inviting commercial enterprises to give their businesses “poppy appeal”? As it says on the British Legion’s website: “By working with us you can increase sales and competitive advantage; maximise brand affinity and build brand equity.”
The legion has two roles, to raise money as a welfare organisation and to act as the custodian of the dignity of remembrance. Sometimes these two roles conflict.
It worries me that remembrance might, unintentionally, serve to sanitise war. The ceremonial must never divert people’s minds from contemplating the awful horror of modern conflict, for both troops and civilians. It would be tragic if the traditions of recalling past sacrifice were seen to promote the military option – when they were intended to rededicate the nation to peace. If, inadvertently, the military music and marching troops of remembrance-tide serve to glorify the profession of arms, rather than to honour, in sorrow, the victims of war, remembrance has failed.
The greatest support and honour we can give our current service personnel is to ensure they are never called upon to prove their heroism on the battlefield.
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