This week in a press release the Royal British legion published a photograph of four children bearing big smiles, holding giant poppies wearing bright yellow t-shirts. On one of the t-shirts were the words, “My Mum Dad are Veterans”, where the remaining three bore the phrase “Future Soldier”. Today I was in town, meeting up with my enlisted brother for brunch before he returned to base. It’s Remembrance Sunday, and whilst waiting for my brother to arrive, I stood outside the town hall and watched the parade of servicemen, Scouts, Guides and emergency services start their march towards the parish church. This year, I was not wearing a poppy.
In the war movie M*A*S*H, the dentist Waldowski decides that a bout if impotence is an indicator of latent homosexuality and that he must therefore kill himself. Hawkeye and Trapper decide to hold a last supper and service for Waldowski. The meal is held, booze is drunk, the priest performs last rites. Waldowski then takes his “black pill” and lies in the coffin, awaiting his death. Each member of the troop passes him by and says their goodbyes, leaving small mementos in his coffin. After his “death”, his corpse is placed in a tent with a young nurse, and Waldowski finds his reason to live again.
My brother related a story to me of an exercise he was on. As part of this exercise he played a casualty being evacuated. Due to a mistake by one of his compatriots, the casualty (he) died. It appears to have had an impact on him. Funny how death does that, even a pretend one.
My brother has wanted to be part of the army for a number of years. It’s almost an oddball direction for someone in our family – my father is a nurse, my mother is a teaching assistant and former nurse, I’m a software developer and fencing coach and our youngest brother is trying to work things out (so far he’s tried metalworking and is currently learning tree surgery). I had a background in Scouting, my father was a member of Mountain Rescue, but nowhere in there is there any real hint of a military background. There’s a bit of paramilitary in the family, but that’s for another day, and would run even more counter to my brother deciding to go the direction he has. But once we were all happy that that’s the way he wanted to go, we’ve done our best to support him. It was a decision taken over time, and one he’s made, consciously, as an adult.
Remembrance Day was established to act as a constant reminder that blood is the price of war. Whatever your politics, when war is called, people go to die, and those people are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. They are someone to somebody. Whether they are there by choice or by force, a served life is a life paid to war. Remembrance is about acknowledging the sacrifice already made and hope that in the future it won’t need to be paid again. That’s the meaning behind the message “Never Forget”. Soldiers don’t call for war, politicians do, and politicians should be held responsible for their actions. This is not to say that soldiers are not responsible for their own actions during war. Individual actions by soldiers are their own responsibility – it is still their own choice to follow orders, or make bad decisions, and where they make mistakes, hopefully, they are called to account. But the decision to wage war is not theirs.
He told me: “I fought you because I was told to and you did the same.”
Harry Patch, Last Veteran of WW1
Fifty Million people lost their lives
During “The war to end all wars”
Yet conflicts continue ad infinitum
As rockets criss-cross Gaza’s shores.
On November the eleventh each year
To remind ourselves of our debt,
We wear a British Legion Poppy
Lest we forget, lest we forget.
“Lest We Forget”, Brian Ellis, 2012
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam
For The Fallen, Laurence Binyon, 1914
In Flanders 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.
In Flanders Field, John McCrae, 1915
Remembrance is not about the glorification of war. That’s all around us, from toys to computer games, to kids playing in the playground, and is a different argument for a different day. Remembrance is about blood and the fallen. The red poppy has been adopted as a universal symbol of remembrance (albeit, one that’s trademarked), after its proliferation on the graves of the deceased, and there’s a responsibility on that symbol to not abuse it or twist its purpose. In the UK, it’s adopted by the Royal Legion as part of its Poppy Appeal, but internationally it means much more than that. In the UK, The Royal British Legion are custodians of this symbol, and have a responsibility to ensure its rightful use. Which I why I was upset with the picture put out with the Royal Legion’s press release. This picture is harrowing, in that it moves us away from remembrance and towards glorification and celebration of war. A child is holding a giant poppy whilst wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan “future solider”, with a large grin on her face. This isn’t remembrance, this is recruitment, and has no place alongside a poppy.
There are those who, unhappy with the politicisation of the red poppy, have taken to wearing a white poppy in remembrance of the victims and to promote peace.
So now, on Remembrance Sunday, it is up to me to speak out for all those fallen or forgotten comrades. But today isn’t just about my generation. It is about all the servicemen who have risked or given their lives, and the soldiers who are still doing so.
Harry Patch, Last Veteran of WW1
There is a reasonable argument that remembrance is no longer just about those who died and survived during the World Wars, nor the wars since, but also about those who are serving now. And that’s fine. Those in service are doing a job, they are sent where politicians tell them to go, and they do the job that politicians give them. Because it’s war, people die. And we remember them, and those who’ve been injured, and those who are currently serving. And that’s a good purpose for remembrance. You don’t have to like war, like politics or like politicians to feel that these people are risking something in service. But the way the legion used the poppy in that photo is a direct abuse of the symbol, and I hope they realise the mistake they’ve made.
As for my brother. Please stop dying in exercises, you make me nervous.