Poppy Hysteria

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Current affairs

Zonnebeke, by Sir William Orpen, 1878-1931

The public hysteria this past few days about the wearing of the poppy rather defeats the act of commemoration it is meant to symbolize. It defeats it because it reduces it to an act of conformity rather than sincere, individual choice; to a display of “Britishness” rather than remembrance. What if someone British chooses not to wear the poppy as a matter of conscience? Does that make them less British? Less patriotic? Less respectful to the memory of those who’ve died in the service of the British armed forces? I wouldn’t dare to judge but sadly many do.

Any BBC reporter or presenter appearing before camera in the weeks (!!) leading up to Remembrance Sunday is required to wear a poppy even though they would rather not; even in Northern Ireland, where most nationalists choose not to wear the poppy because, historically, it’s been used as an assertion of British and unionist identity. And this is a public service broadcaster in a democracy! Imagine a news story from Iran about journalists and other public workers forced to pay public homage or respect to Iran’s war dead or lose their jobs. It would be regarded in Britain as an affront to freedom of speech, a demonstration of state oppression and another good reason to bomb Iranians into regime change.

Or imagine if Iranian football players insisted on wearing a public symbol of commemoration regardless of FIFA regulations. Would that not be seen in Britain as a demonstration of Islamic fanaticism? As crude propaganda? I rather suspect it would. On that note, I wonder about those footballers and football pundits who have spat blood all week about the right of England players to wear the poppy on their jerseys in the game against Spain on Saturday (12 November). If asked, how much would they know about the origins of the poppy as a symbol? How much would they know about the horrors of trench warfare during the First World War in which millions of young men died in the interests not of freedom but of imperialism? How much would they know about the hundreds and thousands of non-British soldiers who have fought and died for the glory of the British armed forces only to be forgotten? The reason I ask is because in the hours of airtime taken up with the issue this week, I’ve heard very little mention of any of that history.

In principle, I think public commemoration of the war dead is a decent thing to do as long as it’s done as a reflection on the futility and horror of war, not as a propagandistic display of patriotism or the glorification of war. I have no problem with people wearing the poppy as long as it’s an act of conscience rather than conformity, as a sincere and sober act of commemoration rather than a fashion statement. I’ve seen some instances on TV where individuals seem to try and outdo each other with the size and style of poppy, departing from the original, simple and humble version most people buy on the street or in the shop.

But what disturbs me most is the way in which the wearing of the poppy has become so politicized – an assertion of Britishness rather than public commemoration in which anyone can participate regardless of identity  – and the hysterical outrage that seems to greet anyone who dares to challenge that and to either insist on its original purpose or choose not to wear it because they can’t identify with its patriotic associations. That’s not democracy. That’s fascism. In the words of the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, it’s “The old lie. Dulce et decorum est. Pro patria mori” ; it is sweet and right to die for your country.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Dulce et decorum est, by Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918). 

  1. I think you really put things into perspective with the comparison. The West can be so hypocritical sometime, and worse, we don’t even realize it!

  2. john barker says:

    Sounds like you just want to be contrary, as if you have NOT been affected by war, or loss of family members. Your arguments about Iranian Footballers is laughable, how do you know what they do in their OWN Country? The idea is to respect the fallen, and this is common to any other country in the world. The guys in the First World War were in ‘waterlogged trenches’ for months on end, NOT sitting, writing stuff “Anonymously” against their memory, in the luxury of an arm-chair.
    Funds raised are used in the looking after the war-injured, maimed and their families, it is NOTHING to do with Political propaganda, which is what your “Anonymous” submission seems to be!

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