Perhaps I’ve just become conscious of these things as I’ve got older, but I don’t recall there ever being such zealous outcries over people abstaining from wearing a poppy on, or during the time leading up to,Remembrance Day. In fact, I don’t ever remember there being such a thing as abstaining from wearing a poppy. You just did or you didn’t. But now, the presence or absence of a poppy on your chest is enough for some people to make rather sweeping assumptions about your beliefs and your character.
In some cases, people feel permitted to abuse the poppyless; James McClean, a Wigan Atheltic footballer, felt it necessary to pen a letter to his team’s chairman justifying his anti-poppy stance, following an apparent Twitterstorm after he played in a football shirt that reportedly lacked sufficient poppiness.
I must confess I couldn’t give a badger’s beaver whether or not someone pins a poppy on their top, or wears a poppy wristband, or practices weed arranging on the grille of their car. I do however, when I remember not to, choose not to wear a poppy.
The 20th Century American poet E. E Cummings said that “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” Cummings died before seeing conformity’s ultimate battleground: online social media. We see it almost daily: a public figure says or does something that offends the masses, and the twitterers flock to their stations, tweeting everything from eloquent polemical denunciations to sabotage and death threats. No matter the war tactics used, the offended typically have the same goal: to draw out an apology from the offender.
Of course, demanding and receiving an apology does not necessarily mean that said person is genuinely sorry. The offender can adopt the most puppy-eyed language they can muster, but it still doesn’t change the fact that when conformity becomes virtually mandatory the resulting gestures expressing that conformity do not express the individual and are therefore completely meaningless. Similarly, demanding someone to wear a poppy because “I facking said so” isn’t doing a lot to change that person’s views on the matter. Now, you might try to persuade the poppyless by explaining to them what the poppy “means”. But this too is problematic.
Say you’re walking down the street whilst wearing your poppy and you pass two people. Let’s assume these two people are poppy zealots on opposing sides and that they are constantly forming internal opinions about people based on how these peole choose to decorate their chest. The first person you pass – let’s call them Dave – might think (in language that less resembles a robot’s and more someone called Dave), “Yes, it is only right that this person should remember the sacrifice of fallen soldiers.” The other person, let’s call them Agnes, might think: “No, this person should not be perpetuating the glorification of war.”
Now, I suspect that after reading these opinions you’ve chosen your allegiance and thought “No, Dave/Agnes is incorrect – that is not what the poppy means.” The problem is, of course, that the poppy doesn’t mean anything at all. In the same way that a falling tree doesn’t make a sound unless someone is there to hear it, a piece of cut-out red paper doesn’t symbolise anything unless someone is there to interpret it.
Now, you might come back on that and say “But it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; this is what the poppy means to me.” The problem is that wearing a poppy isn’t a personal act – it’s an entirely public expression.
For example, say a man gets out of bed and goes downstairs to find a note from his partner that reads “I’ve taken the kids to my parent’s house again.” Now, as we are prone to do, the man might fixate on certain words, reading into “my” and “again” and thinks “What on earth do they mean by that? That I never take the kids to see my parents? That their parents are always babysitting? That I never take the kids anywhere or spend time with them? Is this because of our argument last night? Is this beginning of the end?!?!”
Now, unbeknownst to our little paranoid friend, his partner meant nothing by it – this short declarative sentence was intended to be a simple statement of the facts of their children’s whereabouts, and the partner had no idea that their possessive pronouns or adverbs could be capable of expressing such passive aggression. Unfortunately, whilst driving home after dropping off the kids, the partner is in a car accident and snuffs it. For arguments sake, let’s assume that the man finds time whilst grieving and funeral planning to further speculate on the meaning of his partner’s message. Without the partner alive to explain their honest intentions, the “true meaning” of the note will always be what the man interprets to be.
To be honest, the partner didn’t even need to die to make the point. They could have protested their innocence till they were blue in the face, but the “true meaning” of a text is inherently interpretive rather than expressive. In the same way, when you step outside wearing a poppy it doesn’t really matter what the poppy means to you or what you intended to say by wearing it: what you say without words = what people think they hear.
This leads me to my other problem with the poppy – namely, what I hear when I see it being worn.
First and foremost, I see it as an act of remembrance, of reflecting on the tragic loss of so many lives in the most horrifying circumstances and the succinct warning that we don’t hear often enough when politicians start salivating over prospects of war: “Lest we forget.” So far, no problems.
The problem is the other things I hear when I see the poppy being worn, specifically, as a commemoration of the WW1 soliders who “died in the name of freedom”, who “gave their today for our tomorrow”.
To say that WW1 soldiers sacrificed themselves in the name of our freedom is like saying that a cow sacrifices itself in the name of your protein intake (Indeed, Wilfred Owen, the war’s most celebrated poet, opens his sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth by asking how we can fittingly commemorate “these who die as cattle.”) It is a complete misrepresentation of history. The soldiers of World War One stepped into the trenches ears ringing with jingoism, which was quickly replaced with the “shrill demented choirs of wailing shells” and “the monstrous anger of the guns.”*
These men may have been brave, but they died not in the name of freedom but power – other men’s power. Harry Patch, who in 2009 was the last surviving fighting soldier of the war, said that the “politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”
I have no time for those who sneer at soldiers; for me, words like “courage” and “bravery” will always conjure images of those on the front line. But then so will words like “bloodshed” and “futility”. The patriotic associations I just can’t shake from my interpretation of the poppy skips over the fact that rarely are soldiers serving their country but being served by their country’s politicians.**
For me, a far more fitting act of remembrance would be to read or listen to what I suspect are among the most chilling poems in the English language. Both come from the pens of World War 1 Soldiers who died in the War before reaching the age of thirty.
The first is Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, a horrifying poem that uses a vivid description of a solider “guttering, choking, drowning” after a gas attack to lay waste to “the old lie” that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
The other is The Soldier by Rupert Brooke. This sonnet begins with three heart-breaking and chilling lines:
“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England”
As beautiful as the language might be, it chills me because it is a succinct expression of a believed lie: it implies nobility where there only was futility, sacrifice where there was only slaughter. I believe Brooke meant every word, that he went to his muddy, bloody grave believing he died for some greater cause. And we should read lest we forget how wrong he was.
* Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth
** WW2 perhaps being a singular exception, but that’s a whole other conversation.