It is that time of year again where every poppy pinned to a lapel is joined by a newspaper column, blog or tweet on why no one should be wearing a poppy. To wear or not to wear a poppy is a debate raging everywhere, and unfortunately this controversy is dominating the discourse on commemoration and precluding the wider national debate we should be having on the subject.
People have a lot of problems with the Poppy Appeal. Robert Fisk has written an article for the Independent in which he derided the poppy as an "obscene fashion appendage" that "helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war." Others argue that it is too focused on World War I, at the expense of other conflicts, that it glorifies war, or lends legitimacy to future conflicts. I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it.
The Poppy Appeal was launched in Britain in 1921. The poppy was chosen as its symbol, inspired by a famous contemporary poem about the most recent conflict to ravage the country, but in another time, another place, it could have been anything. To constantly update the symbol to link it to our more recent conflicts would defeat the point of having a symbol in the first place, and there can be no denying that the poppy has today transcended its origins in World War I and In Flanders Fields, and is now used to commemorate and support British Armed Forces from all conflicts, past and present.
Harry Leslie Smith is the perfect example. He wore a poppy not to commemorate World War I, but in honour of his childhood friends who didn't survive World War II. He laments in The Guardian that politicians, newsreaders and business leaders have "turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts." As a result, he is no longer going to wear his poppy after this year. I think Robert Fisk doesn't realise that columns such as his have twisted Harry's symbol of remembrance just as much as the poppy's display on prominent figures at this time of year.
Fisk instructs us to "cast poppies aside" but who is he to say it's nothing more than a "fashion appendage"? What is lost in all this pro- and anti-poppy back and forth is the simple fact that people wear poppies for a great number of personal and varying reasons. Arguments for and against the poppy, Fisk's included, tend to bestow some great, top-down meaning to the poppy, when actually its beauty as a symbol is that it can mean anything to anyone.
I, for example, buy and wear a poppy for one reason only: my granddad. My granddad, a paratrooper in World War II, lost almost his entire family when a bomb landed on their house while he was out getting the paper. Remembrance Sunday was a very important opportunity for him to celebrate them. My granddad's losses are not mine, they are people I never knew. All I do know is that the Poppy Appeal mattered a great deal to him. I accept that my children will probably not feel the same way, having never known my granddad, and their children certainly won't. But that is their decision to make, in the future, for themselves. I donate to the Royal British Legion because I know it would make my granddad happy, I wear a poppy because at the time of year close to his anniversary, it makes me feel close to him.
Furthermore, those that argue that the poppy is a symbol that has us stuck in the past should remember that the money raised from the Poppy Appeal goes to a great number of good causes for the future. Donations provide ex-servicemen and women and their families with counselling, assistance adjusting to civilian life, care home assistance and education and retraining for those leaving the force. Is the Poppy Appeal strictly necessary for charitable donations? No. But does the short-term annual focus of the Poppy Appeal vastly increase the donations given to the Royal British Legion so that they can continue this important work? Of course it does. Not to mention the fact that making artificial poppies provides jobs to veterans who might struggle to find one elsewhere. That Tony Blair wearing a poppy makes you feel sick to your stomach should not detract from all of the good work that the Royal British Legion does, work that is greatly facilitated by the Poppy Appeal.
That is not to say that our commemoration of war should go unchallenged. Next year will be the centenary of the start of the First World War and I join many in their apprehension about how this milestone will be marked. What we commemorate from our unfortunately plentiful history of war and how we do so are contentious issues that need to be openly debated. Fisk thinks that wearing the poppy shuts down these arguments, but he is wrong to place the burden of national debate on the shoulders of people who, sometimes for deeply personal reasons, want to wear a poppy. We should all, Fisk included, focus our efforts on the issues that really do effect us nationally: how should our heads of state publicly deal with war commemoration, how should our country deal with its difficult past, how should our politicians mark something that must not be forgotten, but must be remembered with great care?
Equally, wearing a poppy should never be coerced or compulsory. Many writing in national newspapers this week have shared anecdotes of being approached by producers shortly before appearing on television and being politely asked, "Are you sure you don't want to wear a poppy?" multiple times. This practice must end. One's right not to wear is a poppy is just as important as my right to wear one, and no one should be making that decision on behalf of others in either respect.
By all means, hate war. Work tirelessly to ensure that the national debate is focused on questioning what and why and how we commemorate. But don't hate on poppies, and don't hate on the Poppy Appeal. I wear my poppy for a deeply personal reason, and I'm sure lots of others do too. I won't let that right be denied to me by someone self-important enough to think they can tell me what the poppy means to me. Unfortunately, others will. That is what has happened to Harry Leslie Smith, who feels that his private commemoration has been hijacked and mutated beyond recognition by others. That he feels this way is a great shame.