Poppies, empty lapels and the catastrophe of war

Nov 9, 2015 by

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Every November, I write for a variety of outlets about remembrance in general and poppy color in particular. I had thought to refrain this year on the grounds that I would be in danger of repeating myself. But nothing stands still for long and the gentle zephyr of change has opened up another perspective.

Last week, an actor told Sky News that people who don’t wear a red poppy “can sod off for all I care.” A retired army officer, taking part in a discussion on poppy wearing on BBC Radio 5, delivered himself of the opinion that immigrants to the U.K. should “fall in line” and wear a red poppy. He also expressed, in a disparaging manner, the view that choosing to wear a white poppy was “making a statement.”

In their different ways, these three remarks are slightly comical. But as examples of the intolerant and rather blinkered conformity which has — unfortunately — come to characterize this debate, they merit consideration.

What Barbara Windsor and Colonel Richard Kemp have in common is an inability to realize that there are other viewpoints and that respecting another’s conscience does not undermine your own. The unquestioning acquiescence and reverence toward the red poppy mode of remembrance is beginning to unravel and this is unsettling for some who had thought it should never be questioned. The changing times not only permit question but demand responses capable of going beyond vulgar abuse or defensive authoritarianism.

For those of us who choose to uncouple remembrance from its military dominance, it is encouraging to see that more and more people are expressing a desire to remember all those killed by the immense folly and failure of war. Civilians and military on all sides of armed conflict have a call upon our sorrow and repentance and to insist that wearing a white poppy is an insult to the armed services is as absurd as claiming that all red poppy wearers have forgotten the wider suffering of war. Kemp, unable to encompass this concept, was led into the rather peevish remark about “making a statement.” That is what symbols do. Red poppy, white poppy, empty lapel — each makes a statement in its own way.

The British Legion has been permitted to become, in its own words “the national custodian of Remembrance.” A claim which treads heavily upon the views of many, including survivors of war. It also detracts from the good work done by the Legion in caring for damaged veterans and their families. If it could step back from its ‘branding’ and commercialization of the red poppy (phone cases, T-shirts, jewelry, bags); if it would be willing to publicly dissociate itself from the pressure on everyone appearing in the public eye to wear its symbol and above all, if it could rediscover the penitence of the slogan used in my childhood: ‘Never again’, I would rethink my refusal to wear the compromised symbol.

War is so vast a catastrophe in human experience that we cannot prescribe or limit the peaceful responses of diverse consciences. I should like to commend this, from our Quaker book of discipline, Advices and Queries, to Windsor, Kemp and all who become angry at this time of the year:

“Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia (where this post appeared) with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer and an active Quaker.

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