Tuesday, November 07, 2006

the poppy

Young Ernest Hemingway

Wearing your poppy has always been a big deal in my family. Each year I dutifully, and sincerely, bought my poppy and wore it with pride, before it collapsed or I lost it and I had to buy another – those pins they give you are pretty ineffectual. I did this broadly and simply as a sign of respect for those affected by war. But I also believe war is fundamentally wrong. I understand that there are situations which cannot be ignored, and also believe that there are things worth fighting for, but those are rarely the reasons for going to war.

However, for the last few years I have felt less certain about wearing my poppy, subconsciously pinning in onto a jacket that I’m probably not going to wear any time soon. This year I won’t be buying one.

I worry that wearing the poppy presents the image of a united front of ‘our boys’ against ‘them’, whoever ‘they’ are. I worry I’m closing my eyes to the blood shed by civilians, to the thousands of subjected to rape, degradation and humiliation by those serving in armed forces, and to the prisoners of war locked up for no other reason than they’re on the wrong side.

I’m concerned that wearing the poppy is a sign of support for the gun-toting muppets in power; a pat on the back, a smile, a shrug, that suggests I buy into all the tasty myths they feed us because they’re so appetising next to the truth, which tends to leave a rather sour aftertaste.

A recent British Legion welfare survey, used in this year’s poppy appeal, reveals the following facts:

  • 4,000,000 ex-Service people have a long-term illness or disability
  • 180,000 ex-Service men and women are never visited by a friend or relative
  • 927,000 ex-Service people live on an annual household income of £5,000 or less
  • More than 12,000 British Service men and women have been killed or injured on active service since 1945 in conflicts up to the present day, including Bosnia, the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq.

I believe that when our government persists in pushing ‘our boys and girls’ into wars their voters do not agree with, they should foot the hefty bill when they return bloodied, disillusioned and alienated. Aren’t you, PM, the one making all these big important foreign policy decisions: surely it’s prudent to take all collateral damage into account before you start chucking fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons in as cannon fodder? Oh, and sorry if my language was a bit emotive - I learnt it from you, along with catchy slogans like ‘Be the Best’ (British Army), '99.9% Need Not Apply’ (UK Royal Marines) and ‘Accelerate your Life’ - die faster? (US Navy).

I believe such language, together with wearing the poppy perpetuates the myth that war is romantic, heroic and worthy of our reverence. So wear it when you read The Iliad, but don’t confuse it with 655,000 dead in Iraq.

And finally, I will not be wearing a poppy for the reasons I used to wear one: because I respect all those affected by war, and because I believe war is fundamentally wrong.

Most GCSE students will not leave school without Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem appearing for their analysis and meditation on the school syllabus or in a school assembly:

In Flander 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.

Powerful stuff? I might as well say it now and suffer the consequences: I've never got it. I understand that the central line, both structurally and thematically is of course ‘We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow / Loved and were loved and now lie / In Flanders field’. I understand that when McCrae asks ‘If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep’, he is calling on the living to remember the sacrifices of the dead. But I can’t help but also wonder if he isn’t also imploring us to continue to ‘fight the good fight’.

Who is this foe of whom he speaks, and what if I don’t want to take up his quarrel? What if I think his quarrel is stupid? Or founded on self-interest? What if I drop the torch he’s thrown at me and it breaks and makes an awful bloody mess? And what do you mean, hold the torch high? Celebrate your death whilst I prepare for mine and my partner’s, safe in the knowledge that it will all be for glory? Forgive me, but this is a poem, written by a man who watched a friend and colleague die: this is poem not just of poignancy, fragility and grief but of misery, anger and vitriol.

I would like to see GCSE students have Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time or A Farewell to Arms pushed into their hands more often. The following extract appears as part of A Farewell to Arms and as an isolated vignette in In Our Time:

Nick sat against the wall of the church where they had dragged him to be clear of machine-gun fire in the street. Both legs stuck out awkwardly. He had been hit in the spine. His face was sweaty and dirty. The sun shone on his face. The day was very hot. Rinaldi, big backed, his equipment sprawling, lay face downward against the wall. Nick looked straight ahead brilliantly. The pink wall of the house opposite had fallen from the roof, and an iron bedstead hung twisted toward the street. Two Austrian dead lay in the rubble in the shade of the house. Up the street were other dead. Things were getting forward in the town. It was going well. Stretcher bearers would be along any time now. Nick turned his head carefully and looked at Rinaldi. “Senta Rinaldi. Senta. You and me we’ve made a separate peace.” Rinaldi lay still in the sun breathing with difficulty. “Not patriots.” Nick turned his head carefully away smiling sweatily. Rinaldi was a disappointing audience.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a method of settling international disputes.

I agree with Mr Hemingway. And not just because he’s a better writer.


At 07 November, 2006 22:02 , Blogger Philippa said...

Yes, and yes, and yet -

Every year as I pin my poppy onto the coat that I wear each day I grit my teeth and wonder if people looking at it will think that I believe in killing people because they wear different clothes or learn their stories from a different book, and if they do, that somehow I've signed my name at the bottom of the the message they read on my lapel.

I wear the poppy for my grandfather, for those who remember friends as they lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph, and for those whose partners and brothers spilled blood on foreign soil without ever knowing why.

This Remembrance Day I will wear my poppy for remembrance, and I will continue to protest against war and vote against the gun-toting muppets in power.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

At 08 November, 2006 09:10 , Blogger Ted Guinness said...

I like Philippa wear my poppy with pride. I wear it for Remembrance, as a serving Royal Marine (obviously one of the 0.1%) I have a pride in what todays armed forces achieve.

What people need to remember is that the Armed Forces of the UK are a volunteer force. These people have all signed a contract, that contract means they will act in accordance to the wishes of the Government. As a person I may not always agree, as a serviceman I will always carry out my duty without question.

I am not heartless, I feel for the displaced civilians and those killed by stray bombs, but I care for every service person injured, or either killed in Action or in peace. Those brave men and women have put themselves quite literally in the firing line. They don’t want recognition or parades just to be accepted, for people to understand the job they do on behalf of a society that cares more about celebrity culture and what is wrong with our Country, that what is right with it.

So wear you poppy with pride, support our Troops and the job they do trying to keep you in life that you have become accustom, because of the sacrifices made by those before.

At 08 November, 2006 12:01 , Blogger paddington said...

I think Philippa sums up my argument in her final paragraph. Not wearing a poppy (whether right or wrong) is a terribly passive way to oppose war. Much better is to do all that you can actively, whether by joining anti-war movements, demonstrating, voting against pro-war candidates etc.

Like Philippa, I wear the poppy for a specific person (my granny's brother, who was shot down over Holland in 1941, aged 21). I also place a cross in the courtyard of Westminster Abbey each year, on which one can write a message. Not knowing too much about my great-uncle, I just his name and the years in which he was born and died. Other people write short, emotionally-packed messages to loved ones who have died, or continue to fight, in wars. I have never seen a cross with any kind of gung-ho, oh-what-a-lovely-war sentiments.

There is something in the sacrificial nature of fighting for one's country which appeals to the death drive in everybody, and which is thus a romantic subject for poets. But in the main, war poetry (especially that of the First World War) is bleak and unflinching. Take "Attack" by Siegfried Sassoon:

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glowering sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesu, make it stop!

There is no more military glory there than there is in Apocalypse Now. It dispenses with the ideological excuses for war, and forces to watch its dreadful inhumanity. I think it is this human cost which most people commemorate (but not glorify) in wearing a poppy. If you are worried about what people might think, the white poppy is a good alternative.

As an aside, technology obviously makes war easier : it is much more palatable to drop a bomb from several thousand feet up, than to drive a bayonet through someone's belly. It turns people into statistics - or, in the case of Vietnam and now Iraq, mythical statistics - nobody really knows how many people are killed because there are just too many to count. Phrases like "collateral damage" and "routine attack" show the systematic nature of war.

But however awful war is, we must struggle with the fact that sometimes it is necessary : the Nazis had to be fought, as the Munich Agreement so woefully demonstrates. And it is the failure of appeasement of the 1930s which enables politicians to justisy their bloodthirst. This could yet be the most terrible legacy of World War Two : how will we ever know when a war is just?

At 08 November, 2006 18:40 , Blogger darling vicarage said...

Thanks all three of you for commenting. I felt very apprehensive about posting my thoughts on this because wearing a poppy has always been a big deal for me, and it was good to be reminded of people's reasons for doing so. It's not so much because I worry about what other people think, but perhaps about how I interpret the poppy. Increasingly I've begun to think that it isn't just worn for remembrance, but that it has been co-opted as another symbol in our culture to symbolically support and uphold what I believe to be outdated notions of war being based on what is right and true, and that war is in some way romantic and heroic. But I too have family members that fought in the Great War, and friends currently in the armed services, (and Indo-Malay family with highly conficted attitudes on the British services) but whether or not I wear a poppy has no bearing on my feelings about their sacrifices.

At 09 November, 2006 16:42 , Anonymous anna said...

Nice post, DV.

I wear a white poppy, as you know - they seem hard to come by but generally turn up in odd corners (such as climate change marches!). I feel it shows remembrance while side-stepping any qualms about glorification - & after all, it says "peace" in the centre!

This is something I always think about at this time of year.


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