This post is a little off track from the blog but with nothing to do and a little too much time on my hands this weekend, it was suggested to me that I think about writing a post about remembrance. It seems fitting as it is coming up to Armistice’s Day, a day that always seems to bring about some level of controversy. Thinking about this and writing this post has given me a little bit of focus anyway!
The title question of this post is a question I have been asked many times. Only recently though. You see my dad is a veteran along with his brothers and various other family members and so, I was raised to wear a poppy as a mark of respect and to commemorate the fallen. Many people do the same, in recent years however, I made the decision not to wear one and this post will explain why. It may cause controversy or spark debate but stay with me.
In recent weeks the news has been dominated by FIFA’s ban on players wearing the poppy as they consider it a political statement. This has led to an outcry from various institutions who claim that this is not the case, I think though, in today’s society it is dangerous to consider the poppy, as a symbol, apolitical. Let’s take a trip back in time to look at the origin of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. John McCrae, the writer of ‘In Flanders Fields’, was a poet and physician from Ontario, Canada. His poetry often focused on death and the peace that followed. *Note: The peace that followed- I’ll come back to this. During the First World War- ‘The war to end all wars’- I’ll come back to this also- after the funeral of a comrade, McCrae wrote the following:
‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields’
These words were the beginning of the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance but let’s break down these words. As mentioned before, McCrae’s writing tended to focus on death and the peace that followed. My interpretation of the above words would take the first two verses as a vivid description of the life and death of human beings, the sacrifice of man. The third however, deals directly with this notion of ‘the peace that follows’, it offers a direction ambition for peace- ‘the torch; be yours to hold it high’. Essentially what he is saying is we our giving our lives, sacrificing ourselves so you can live in peace, but you have to do it yourself, you have to be that beacon of hope- ‘the torch’. He acknowledges the fight and urges for us to remember that but never repeat it- ‘If ye break faith with those who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow’- The only way he can rest in peace is to know that his death wasn’t in vain. He fought for peace. He fought in the ‘war to end all wars’, gave his life so no one else would have to experience that trauma and what have we done, created more! The hypocrisy! Here in Britain we use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance but what exactly are we remembering.
British forces have been involved in some form of active combat every year since that poem was written, so why do we feel the need to ‘remember’? Remember what? Let’s think about this… We initially set out to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in a quest for peace. Every year we come together to take part in this act of ‘remembering’ when, in fact, the world is more fragmented than ever. As the years go by, we seem to add to the list more and more people that deserve to be ‘remembered’, it is here that we see the emergence of the ‘political statement’ debate. A debate that appeared nonsensical at the beginning, that is now making more sense. The poppy, initially used to commemorate ‘the great wars’, is now being used to commemorate those who have died ‘anywhere’ that has been the subject of active combat, basically any ‘warzone’, official or unofficial.
As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, I can completely understand why many people, in Ireland, look upon the poppy as a political statement. For all intents and purposes, ‘The Troubles’ was a war (a civil war at least), though never officially classified, it was. When I did wear a poppy, my argument to anyone who called it a ‘political statement’ was that during the great wars the British and Irish fought together therefore I am remembering everyone however, as I’ve said the idea of remembrance has shifted in recent times, meaning that the poppy now has the ability to frame who and what we remember. Now that we are commemorating ‘everyone’, we are commemorating those that lost their lives in Northern Ireland too. I’m not in any way saying we shouldn’t, but at the same time it makes it a little more understandable as to why some people wouldn’t want to. Though it may be controversial, I can see why in recent times, people feel that the poppy has become a symbol of British nationalism.
Obviously, I can’t speak for England, Scotland or Wales when discussing this but I find the whole act of ‘remembering’ completely ironic. Whilst the poppy is a symbol of remembrance it was also a reminder of ‘what not to do’, yet every year we bear witness to politicians laying wreaths at cenotaphs up and down the country, the same politicians that actively vote to send people into conflict zones. To link back to one of my previous posts, I said I felt like we remember the bad in order to rectify it yet, in terms of war, we remember but do nothing. Maybe we ‘remember’ so we can justify our actions, I mean at least we’re not Hitler eh? (but that’s a whole other post). The poppy has now gone so far beyond its original purpose, so much so, that for many it has become a political statement. My opinion is that the wearing of a poppy is a subjective and personal decision but I also feel that to disregard the emergent discourse is to fail the poppy’s original symbolism completely.
So the next time you see me in late October/ early November and feel the need to ask ‘Why don’t you wear a poppy? Know that my answer is: I don’t wear a poppy not because I see it as a political statement but because people are still dying and I’m yet to witness the peace that should have followed. We are still in Flanders Fields!
Will we ever learn?