Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day and all over the commonwealth, at 11 am, millions of people will stop what they are doing to observe a minute or two of silence - myself included. Many of them will be wearing the traditional red poppy as a mark of memorial respect. I am not one of those and here's why....

Poppy appeal image

Taking inspiration from the First World War poem 'In Flanders Fields', the symbolic red poppy was first worn by the American Legion in 1921, to commemorate their servicemen and women who were killed in the Great War (1914-1918). It went on to be adopted by all countries that were victorious in that war.

In recent years a kind of 'poppy fascism' has emerged in the UK. All television personalities, politicians, sportsmen are expected to wear them, and there is genuine hysteria when someone chooses not to.

You can buy a red poppy from a Royal British Legion volunteer in any town, city or village, with proceeds used to support current and former British servicemen (and women) and their dependants. The RBL says the red poppy is "worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today".

Armistice Day facts: Why do we wear poppies and have two minutes silence for Remembrance Day on November 11?
Ceramic red poppies outside the Tower of London in 2014

I consider myself English, but I am half-English and half-American. All of my English great-grandparents (and possibly some of the American) were involved in the Great War in some way, some of them lost their lives. My father served in the United States Air Force, my grandfather in the Royal Air Force. Between them they served in all the military conflict since, and including, the Second World War.

The two World Wars saw catastrophic levels of death, both military and civilian. It is estimated that 17 million died in the Great War, whilst the death toll in WWII ranges from 50 to 80 million people depending on the source. All able-bodied adult men were conscripted to serve, the majority of them never returned, almost an entire generation was lost. Had they not fought, the world would have succumbed to the evil of the Nazis. These servicemen and women (and civilians) were undoubtedly heroes, they have my respect and deserve yours too.

The poppy does not commemorate the enemies servicemen and women, nor their civilians. It's very much a 'them and us' kind of thing. I don't think that's right. I'd like to honour and respect them too.

And then there is all the conflict since 1945; Vietnam, the Iraq Wars, Kosovo, Afghanistan and so on. In the majority of those conflicts I think military action was the wrong option. These wars weren't fought for freedom and liberty, they were aggressive acts of regime change for economical/political gain, and they all involved a huge and unnecessary loss of life. The second Iraq War was particularly grotesque, our country broke international law to invade, using a known lie as justification. Anything up to 400,000 innocent Iraqi civilians lost their lives and the resultant political vacuum has increased instability in the region and fuelled ISIS. 

If I was a serviceman called to fight in these conflicts, I would have downed my arms. Conscription or not, I would have fought in the two World Wars. Defend my countries liberty and freedom would be a noble and worthy existence. I'm thankful I was born in to a generation that did not have to fight just to survive. Those that continue to work in the military do so by choice and why anyone would make that choice is beyond me.

All loss of life is tragic. I believe that all life is equal, regardless of gender, colour, race or religion. It is hard for my sympathy not to be drawn more to an innocent Iraqi civilian, than the military serviceman who had a choice to be there. 

My children have a Slovakian mother, their great-great grandparents fought (and died) in the Great War... for the enemy! I'd suggest that those great-great grandparents are just as worthy of remembrance as their English counterparts. They were not evil. They too were victims; innocent pawns sent to their deaths with no choice whatsoever. I'm sure my children (and indeed I) would like to pay our respects to all of our family on Remembrance Day, not just half. A red poppy to some would be quite an insult.

Along with their Slovak heritage, my children were both born in Ireland. One day they may even opt for Irish citizenship. I lived there myself for 7 years, so it's kind of my adopted country. During my time in Ireland I learnt about the historical conflict between the two countries, something (not surprisingly) absent from the history syllabus in England. Hearing stories like Bloody Sunday shocked and appalled me. I felt guilty and ashamed of my country, not proud. The red poppy serves as a memorial to the British serviceman involved in that incident, but not the Irish civilians. That's doesn't sit too well with me.

Fundamentally, I disagree with war, I believe the answers can almost always be found through dialogue. I concede that the two World Wars were necessary, doing nothing was not an option, however I choose to remember all of the dead - regardless of which side they were on. The majority of conflict since then has been questionable at best, but almost always avoidable, and in some cases illegal. As a result, the military profession can no longer be seen as honourable like its generational predecessors. Those who are currently serving should question if their motives align with those of who they fight for, and if their motivation is to make a better world - there are dozens of more worthy vocations.

The lesson of the 2nd World War should have been that humans need to live together in peace and harmony; that we shouldn't judge on the basis of race, colour or religion. If this was the lesson it has not been learnt. The red poppy does not promote inclusion, it is selective remembrance. Now more than ever we need a society that promotes tolerance, inclusion and forgiveness. It could be argued that by selling poppies through the RBL we are glamorising war; there is no argument that it supports the military, albeit in relatively small terms. The RBL's 'Young Professional Poppy Rocks' is sponsored by Lockheed Martin - the worlds largest arms manufacturer.

I think that there are far more pressing issues in our country than senseless wars; a global economy crisis, rising unemployment, the ever increasing wealth gap and immigration to name but a few. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai recently urged world leaders to 'cut eight days of military spending' - which would allow ALL children 12 years of free education. That is a staggering statistic and would be a far wiser investment in our future than Trident, for example.

If you've read this and it resonates with you, do as I have done, take off the red poppy and put on a white one. It's only a small gesture, but I think it makes all the difference. The white poppy "symbolises the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts and embodies values that reject killing fellow human beings for whatever reason." Sales proceeds go directly to the Peace Pledge Union - an organisation that (as their name suggests) support peace. The white poppy is inclusive, it remembers all victims of war. That, I believe, is a worthy cause.

The Best Anti-War Sign We’ve Seen In Ages | MoveOn.Org:

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