Remembrance matters, however it is done
The poppy is now a matter of controversy. Some claim it is a symbol of militarism and a glorification of war. In the parlance of today’s zero-sum dialogue, the poppy is tied to war, war is bad and should be ended, ergo sum the poppy is bad and should be eradicated. In a time when facts matter far less than feeling, this sounds like a convincing argument.
Let’s look at some facts. The poppy as a symbol of remembrance was promoted by an American educator named Moina Michael.
She taught at the Lucy Cobb Institute, built in the 19th century to ameliorate the condition of women’s education. She was inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields written by the Canadian battlefield surgeon John McCrae. While teaching disabled servicemen in 1918, Michael began to agitate for silk poppies to be sold to pay for the basic needs of veterans abandoned by their nation after the guns fell silent, as is the case to this day.
I am a veteran and the son of a
veteran of the second world war. My father came home an empty shell of a man. To this day, I relive the killing fields of the Yugoslavian slaughter in my dreams. The effects of my service caused me years of pain, homelessness and substance abuse. My son is three years old. I will use all the strength in me to ensure that he never knows the horror of war. I will do this by explaining its stark reality to him. I will bear witness.
For those who don’t wish to wear a poppy, I have a proposition. Some seem to think that soldiers don’t understand the role of nation states, corporations and arms manufacturers in war. We always have. I ask you to bear in mind that the people who gave their lives did so in the belief that somehow their sacrifice could move humanity forward. That is a noble goal even if you think that they were misled and mistaken in holding it.
I propose that all of us live together in peaceful community, and every time we approach someone with whom we disagree, we treat them with empathy, humanity and respect and commit the only true act of remembrance that matters.
Nova Scotia, Canada
While we should certainly remember the soldiers who had their lives taken away (not “given”) in the first world war (Honour for last British soldier killed in first world war, 3 November), we should also remember the generals and politicians who caused their deaths.
The first world war was a wholly unnecessary conflict that could not conceivably have brought any benefit to those fighting on either side. The utterly ineffective tactics used resulted in the inevitable deaths of millions, who were seen as entirely expendable.
There is no doubt those in charge were guilty of crimes against humanity and should have been tried for these instead of crying crocodile tears about how dreadful it was that so many were killed or injured. The fact that it is the Earl Haig Fund that sells the poppies is why I refuse to wear one. I’ll remember those murdered in the trenches in my own way.
In September 1914 Laurence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, a poem in which one line stands out from the routine patriotism of the rest. It reads: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” These words occur on war memorials up and down the land, and are often misquoted as “They shall not grow old” (They Shall Not Grow Old review – Peter Jackson’s electrifying journey into the first world war trenches, theguardian.com, 16 October).
The misquotation is now given extra currency by the film of that title. It is of course obvious that the fallen will not grow old. How could they? But Binyon says they shall “grow not old ” (my italics) and he continues: “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” The implication is that they will grow in our collective and individual memories. It is a far more subtle and more moving thought than the misquotation.
There is no doubt those in charge were guilty of crimes against humanity and should have been tried