The red poppy: a compromised symbol?

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
12 Nov 2011

To be a child in the 50s and 60s was to be familiar with the sight of men, still young, who had been lamed or disfigured by war. Many more - my father among them - carried wounds in their psyches which were impediments to their becoming the husbands and fathers they would have wished to be.

My father frequently said “ war makes men mad” and from both him and my grandfather, who had, at least physically, survived the Somme, I absorbed the concept that those who had not “been there” could easily be led into falsity when speaking or writing of war and remembrance.

Combined with a religious and cultural unease over 'outward forms', this has given me a lifelong disquiet about Remembrance Day, and, in recent years, of its red poppy symbol. Even in childhood, I shrank from the marches, flag-bearing and official solemnity. I have never doubted the need to 'remember' but I am grateful to have been taught by the then unfashionable and unpopular witness of my parents that it was our calling to remember the dead of both sides and all the victims of war who never wore uniforms or bore arms.

The act of remembrance is bound to change – there are now none left alive who have personal memories of the 1914-18 war and the numbers who directly experienced combat in the second war are rapidly diminishing. The dominant signifier is now the conflict in Afghanistan and once again, we see maimed young men in our streets and places of work. There is a new emotional charge to the act of remembrance – it could be no other way – but the reality and horror of modern warfare and the intensity of loss, particularly in an age where 24/7 communication brings their raw quality to every TV screen and smart-phone, may easily destabilise judgement. Remembering has been none too subtly coupled with a requirement to be entirely uncritical of the armed forces and all that they are required to do – an attitude which is quick to take offence at even the suggestion of a more nuanced approach to the complex issue of military action, to its alternatives, and to the standing of those who participate in it.

David Cameron, who has indignantly refuted the idea that the red poppy could be a political symbol
– a stance which would elicit a contemptuous response from any citizen of Northern Ireland - made this pronouncement on Armistice Day: “If you ask yourself what are the things that are still absolutely great, first class, best in the world, about this country, you would put our armed forces – our Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force – right up there.” Only the most narrow definition of 'political' could exclude the political significance of this braggart nationalism.

This shift of emphasis from remembrance to an emphasis on support of our armed forces has compromised the red poppy. The pointless and frankly xenophobic spat over poppies on the shirts of the English football team sums up the bias and sentimentality which it has suited the government to encourage. Frank Lampard says that if the team appeared without poppies, they would be “letting them (the armed forces) down”. Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris described the red poppy as a symbol of “our support for those serving the country at this time.”

The growing compulsion to wear a red poppy and to acquiesce in the remodelling of its purpose has diverted our attention from the more enduring and demanding aspects of remembering the destruction, personal, collective and environmental, which is the outcome of military action. My colleague Simon Barrow has highlighted this in his blog: Not just waving poppies, but drowning thought (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15705)

The best support we can offer to the indisputably courageous men and women of our armed forces, is to seek means of keeping them out of the way of bullets and IEDs. Nation building, conflict resolution and peacemaking are the tools of this alternative way and if a fraction of the resources expended on war and its machinery were to be diverted to these ends, we would perhaps come nearer to fulfilling the hopes of the millions who have died.

A banner displayed at the peace meditation which took place at the Occupy camp at St Paul's today (12 Nov) points us past both the failure of politics and its current tendency to wrap itself in regimental colours: “ Mourn the dead. Heal the wounded. End the wars.” Can we reclaim the red poppy as a symbol of that vision?

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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