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When I was a Scout, it was expected that you’d wear a poppy throughout most of November and attend the Remembrance Sunday service. We’d remember the men who sacrificed themselves to defend democracy in both the first and second world wars. The men who were forcefully conscripted and died, lonely, in the fields of France and Belgium, the deserts of North Africa or the jungles of Burma. The men who survived, suffering the memories of the horrors they’d seen without the support they should have had from medicine or the government. It was a matter of pride and to respect the sacrifice that was made.
Nowadays, however, I don’t tend to buy or wear a poppy. This isn’t out of laziness or apathy; you can buy a poppy pretty much anywhere. No, every late October I actively make a decision that I won’t be wearing one. This is going to anger a lot of you, I understand. You’ll tell me I’m unpatriotic, selfish and making a political statement out of something that shouldn’t be political. That I don’t support the heroism of our armed forces. That I’m alone in my disregard for the people who kept this country free. Well, there’s more people like me than you’d imagine, but I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong for wearing a poppy. I just have a few reasons why I won’t wear one.
Firstly, I’m a pacifist, so anything that almost glorifies the sacrifice of war isn’t something I’m comfortable with. I’ve seen people wearing the white poppy (one of my closest friends is doing so at the moment) which is a good statement against war, but I don’t want to buy into the concept as a whole. The poppy ignores those who weren’t willing to go to war, who conscientiously objected, or who weren’t allowed to fight because they were a homosexual, or disabled, or perceived as weaker.
Secondly, it’s become something it was never meant to be. If the poppy was still about the first and second world wars and the men who were sacrificed, I’d be able to wear one. But it no longer is. Now, it’s a symbol of support for the armed forces as a whole. It is used every year by politicians and the media seeking to make a point, to glorify the armed forces and war as a wonderful thing to do. To show that the ultimate sacrifice for the country is the most important thing you can do. I don’t believe it is and I don’t really support the armed forces – I support the people, of course, but I don’t support the military. I don’t believe we should spend nearly as much as money on defence as we do. I don’t hold the armed forces up as heroes or as something beyond criticism.
That’s an important point. I don’t believe people in the military are heroes. I imagine some of them could be. Some of them are brave. Some of them are impressive. Some of them are dedicated and driven by a desire to defend their country and democracy. Some of them sign up due to a sense of duty or to protect people. But I don’t think everyone that joins does. In my eyes being in the military is as heroic as being a nurse, a doctor, a fireman, a teacher and a police officer. We don’t have a month of remembrance for any of these people. We criticise teachers almost daily, and we demonise nurses that haven’t provided the best care. Criticism of the military is almost stamped out, especially in November, because being willing to die is seen as something more.
I’ve spoken to a serving soldier about the use of hero to describe soldiers. He told me he thought it was wrong, that the inability to criticise did the military a disservice, and that most of the soldiers he knew signed up because it was a job, that paid quite well, or gave them the chance to explore the world and hold a gun. I don’t doubt that being willing to die is impressive, but someone signed up to the military is also willing to kill. I don’t think that’s heroic and I never will.
Finally, and my biggest problem with the poppy, is the expectation. You are expected to wear a poppy in November. If you are on TV at any point from mid-October to the 11th you have to wear one, and if you don’t, you’ll be vilified in the media. Especially in the lovely Daily Mail or The Sun. That’s not right. Wearing a poppy should be a decision that is actively made, not one that’s thrust upon you for fear of offending someone. You should know exactly what you are signed up for, what you are supporting and where your donation is going to. You should never feel forced or compelled to support a cause simply because everyone else is.
I did take part in the two minutes silence. It is a solemn moment, with no advertising, no money and no expectation. It is the essence of what Rememberence Day should be. Through it I remembered and showed my respect for those who died, needlessly, because governments couldn’t agree. I’ll remember the horrors they had to face. I’ll also be remembering all those who have died in state led conflict throughout the globe and throughout the ages – soldiers and civilians – and the people who were killed or imprisoned for not wanting to fight.