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As we enter the firework-scented, leaf-crunching month of November, you will see many a lapel emblazoned with a red poppy. Volunteers from the British Legion will be raising money for charity by selling these poppies, which aim to commemorate the men and women who gave up their lives in service to king and country. So far it all sounds very patriotic and ‘spirit of the Blitz’. But here’s why I won’t be wearing one.
The poppies first gained popularity after the Great War, the so called ‘war-to-end-all-wars’. The poem ‘In Flanders Field’ by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae mentioned the fields of poppies which grew over the graves of thousands of soldiers. Since then this symbol has grown in popularity around the world, mainly in the United Kingdom and its territories.
So why not wear them? Why not celebrate fallen heroes with an innocent red poppy? Well because the original idea behind it, to remember the First and Second World Wars and how many millions died in horrific conditions, has been diluted and expanded to include any conflict that the UK enters into, including those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.
Many people with heritage in those nations or who protested against their invasion feel that the poppy does not represent their views.The poppy is such a recognised symbol that to wear one would indicate to any passer by that the wearer supports the military actions of the British Forces.
Protests against the wearing of the poppy have occurred in Ireland and China, to name just two. They have an association with British imperialism, particularly in the Opium Wars, which decimated China, and the Troubles. Many people descended from nations colonised by the British resent that their ancestors were forced into fighting for an invading oppressor, to die far away from home.
It is also an unwritten rule that anyone in the public eye, be it newscasters, politicians or entertainers, wear a poppy in the build up to Remembrance Sunday. Though I wouldn’t go as far as calling it ‘poppy fascism’ like broadcaster Jon Snow did, I do believe that there’s something to be said that anyone not wearing a poppy is accused of dishonouring the war dead. Not wearing a poppy is not dishonouring anyone, it’s simply a personal choice.
There are alternatives to the red poppy for those with differing political views. White poppies are available as a pacifist version of the red one and Animal Aid has released a purple poppy to remind us that animals, though incapable of signing up to war, are victims nonetheless.
I want to take this opportunity to say that this isn’t about individual soldiers; certainly they have a dedication that I do not have, but I cannot in good faith support the invasion of a country on the basis of imperialism and lies. Donate money to the Royal British Legion if you want to, because they provide much needed financial, emotional and social support to members or veterans of the armed forces, plus their families. But the almost jingoistic poppy wearing need not be a part of it.
Wear the poppy if you wish to and agree with its history and meaning. Donate to the Royal British Legion and other charities than carry out much needed work. Just make sure you stick by it when December comes and poppies are scattered once again: on landfills, in cupboards and in gutters.