Why are you wearing a poppy?

Making Remembrance Day the default undermines its purpose

Photo: US Air Force

It’s November, and poppies have started to bloom on the lapels of politicians and the public across the country. The symbols are, much to the chagrin of some, far rarer in our universities. Outside student circles, you are far more likely to hear the question “Why aren’t you wearing a poppy?” than its counterpart “Why are you wearing a poppy?”. We can easily imagine an answer to the first question: “because it glorifies war”.

It’s harder to know what an answer to the second question would even look like. You might say “To remember” or “Lest we forget” – mantras we hear all on repeat as we grow up. Yet this wouldn’t really reveal much about what you wanted to remember, or why you’d want to remember at all. If the recent media outrage at students’ lack of institutional support for Remembrance Day is warranted, then there ought to be a good reason why wearing a poppy is the default. We need a proper answer to the question, “why do we celebrate Remembrance Day?”

A supporter of Remembrance Day might point to the fact that it reminds us how horrible war is, so we think twice before declaring it. In fact, however, Remembrance Day is counter-productive in looking backwards. It makes it easier to limit our distaste for war to memory and to limit that memory to a single day each year. It suddenly becomes possible to adopt an attitude of “That war business was pretty awful wasn’t it?” whilst turning a blind eye to armies wading into another Middle Eastern country. Politicians adjust their poppy while announcing another bombing campaign.

War is happening now all around the world. Pigeonholing it as something from the past which was “really bad but thankfully over now” distracts from the reality of the situation. War is not consigned to the past; seeking merely to remember distracts from the awful reality of the present. Remembrance Day looks back too much: a better way to avoid war would be to look at the present, without setting aside just one day for it.

People often claim that they observe Remembrance Day to honour the dead. This of course seems admirable in many ways. But if people really observe Remembrance Day to honour the dead, then when standing by the war memorial at 11 o’clock, poppies blowing a little in the cold breeze, they ought also to be thinking of the German dead from the First World War. Just like the British, the German soldiers had no control over their fate in the 1910s. They were conscripted to fight in a war about which they had no say. If the British soldiers deserve to be remembered, so do those on the other side. Moreover, so do the innocent civilians murdered by both sides. Do they cross the mind of the person standing at the Cenotaph? It doesn’t seem that people honour the dead equally.

Of course, some would be happy to admit this inequality and say “We should honour our soldiers. They died for us”. This is a nationalistic echo – it’s an assumption that dying for us is somehow more honourable than dying for anyone else. Most soldiers on both sides of the First World War were conscripted. They didn’t die for King and country, for people a century in the future, or for freedom. They died because they were ordered – forced – to go over the top of the trenches into barbed wire and gunfire. They died because they had no choice. There is an equality in the death of the conscripted soldier that ought to be recognised, irrespective of nationality.

Remembrance Day originally emerged as tradition as the bereaved came together to mark the loss of their loved ones. The cathartic effect of these ceremonies must of course have been powerful for those grieving. Everyone there knew someone who had died. This is the best reason for Remembrance Day: it helped people cope with the loss of their loved ones.

There is still a role for this today; soldiers are still killed, leaving behind grieving family and friends. But to make it the default, to make the ceremonies nationalised, televised and impersonal, is to lose the meaningful connection to the dead in a fog of empty duty and pageantry. It undermines the original and best reason for the day itself. Remembrance Day has taken on a near holy status. It is to be capitalised and observed, like a day of worship. You are not to challenge it, you do not question it, and you will not even think too hard about it lest you seem ungrateful. This brand of retrospection requires justification if it’s going to be seen as the default option. War is still happening, so treating it as something to be “remembered” is not only wrong but potentially dangerous.

Remembrance Day has both its roots and soul in personal reflection about loved ones; enforcing observance of Remembrance Day through snide glances and accusations of ingratitude perverts this aim, alienating everyone from the true point of Remembrance Day. Whether or not we observe it, we should all reflect on our reasons for doing so.