Why I Didn't Wear a Poppy This Year.

"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them."
From "For the Fallen", a poem by Laurence Binyon, a.k.a. the "Ode of Remembrance".

On November 11th, 2011, at 11 am, silence fell over all Britain as people remembered those who had given their lives in service of their country. I was one of those who maintained this respectful silence. However, as I did this, I was not filled with pride at the thought of the many who have fought, died or been injured in war. Rather, I thought of what a terrible and tragic waste of life war always brings. And so, as I stood there, I was not wearing a poppy, as, although the poppy is an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, I feel it also, of late, has been used to glorify that which I find resolutely inglorious.
I suppose me and my family have always had a strange relationship with the poppy and its symbolism. My great grandfather, Jesse Sheldon, died after serving in World War I, and his widow, Louisa, was left to bring up six children alone in direst poverty. From the day my great grandfather died, Louisa refused to buy a poppy because in the centre was written the inscription, "Earl Haig Fund". My great grandmother blamed Haig for Jesse's fate, and after receiving no pension money from the army at all, she strictly forbade all her children from buying the symbol of remembrance. Even down to my own mother, this command remained, and one of my cousins, who was a lecturer in history at Birmingham University, wrote of how he also felt the "granite immovability" of this edict.
However, it is not for this reason that I did not wear a poppy this year. More and more, I find that there is a lot of propaganda and jingoism surrounding our current involvements abroad. So much so, in fact, that you could almost sense in the air that not to buy a poppy was some sort of act of sedition. Indeed, when a war correspondent for the "Independent" newspaper came on to our local radio station and gave his own, very valid, reasons for not wearing the poppy, he was called "an idiot" by another caller. Ironically, she said that people had died defending our right to freedom of speech and as such should be afforded this token of respect, only to, as I have said, roundly admonish the war correspondent for having a different point of view than hers. So, as we go far afield to supposedly defend the rights and freedoms of others, it seems that our own right to freedom of expression, at least in this case, while not exactly not allowed, is perhaps undermined by a dominant feeling that those who do not support our efforts are not patriotic enough.
Indeed, the poppy has perhaps always been bound up with an element of propaganda. The poem "In Flanders Fields", by Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John Mcrae, and written in 1915, is said to have inspired the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The red poppy flowered on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli in the spring of 1915, and in its first lines the poem mentions the flower, stating, "In Flanders fields the poppies blow". The poem, however, goes on to have a somewhat sabre-rattling conclusion, stating that "the dead" are somehow imploring those left to "take up our quarrel with the foe". The inspiration, then, for the wearing of the poppy, was, from the first, bound up with ideas of the glorification of battle.
In actual fact the First World War saw some of the most wanton and needless destruction of life ever witnessed, with many blaming the incompetence of the generals, and the phrase "lions led by donkeys" came to be synonymous with the war. Such tragic waste of life led Wilfred Owen, the poet who fought and died in the war, to declare that the thought that it is good or honourable to die for one's country (or as he put it, in Latin, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) was actually an "old lie".
Despite this, still, today, we appear to view giving up one's life for one's country as heroic, rather than tragic. However, one of the most famous of all Englishmen, Samuel Johnson, quoted in the "Life of Samuel Johnson" by James Boswell, stated that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", a statement qualified by Boswell by him saying that Johnson did not mean "a real and generous love of our country, but that pretend patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest." So, to my mind, with the exception of World War II, I don't think that there has ever really been a cause actually worth fighting and dying for. It is self-interest which mostly governs the actions of governments during war, and, as American author and essayist Edward Abbey suggested, a true "patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government." And here I come to our latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What sealed my opinion about these involvements abroad, particularly in terms of Iraq, was when I read the first few pages of David Harvey's "A Brief History of Neoliberalism". It seems that when all other justifications for the pre-emptive war in Iraq failed, the "freedom" of that country became, as Harvey states, "in and of itself adequate justification for the war". But, Harvey asks, just what sort of freedom are we conferring, by force of arms, upon the Iraqi people?
On 19th September, 2003, Paul Bremer, the head of Coalition Provisional Authority, announced, to quote Harvey, "the full privatisation of public enterprises, full ownership rights by foreign firms of Iraq businesses, full repatriation of foreign profits...the opening of Iraq's banks to foreign control, national treatment for foreign companies and...the elimination of nearly all trade barriers." Such orders were "applied to all areas of Iraq's economy, including public services, the media, manufacturing, services, transportation, finance and construction", with only oil remaining exempt, because, Harvey suggests, of its being a revenue producer to pay for the war and its geopolitical significance. Meanwhile, the labour market was, on the other hand, strictly regulated, with strikes being forbidden in key sectors and the right to unionize restricted. A regressive "flat tax" was also imposed.
Some said that these orders were against the Geneva and Hague conventions, since an occupying power is obliged to guard the assets of an occupied country and not sell them off. However, the U.S. managed to circumvent this inconvenient law by appointing a "sovereign" interim government, thereby making the orders "legal".
The hope of all this was that by guaranteeing the freedom of the markets, somehow individual freedoms would grow. Wealth should increase and improve well-being. The only trouble is, as Harvey points out, this particular sort of "freedom" tends to favour "the interests of private property owners, business, multinational corporations and financial capital". How does this, then, actually secure the "freedoms" of average Iraqis? Indeed, a friend of mine who studied history and has two degrees in the subject, remarked that the war was, in fact, an act of "looting". And, we are often told back home that soldiers are dying in order to protect our own "freedom". But, I think, in the light of such facts, we should always ask what sort of "freedom" is meant, and whose interests does it really serve? Could it be that our own fervent patriotism of today is really just a front which hides "a cloak of self-interest"?
So, as silence fell over Britain, I, as I say, did indeed "remember them". I remembered all of those who appear to have died or been maimed needlessly. I remembered the sacrifice of those in my own family who served. And, I remembered the hypocrisy of the politicians, some of whom had sent our servicemen and women to fight, and who, on Remembrance Sunday, stood with arrogant pomp as the last post was played. And, unlike them, I was not wearing a poppy.          


THE SNEE said…
Hi David,

What an incredible story about the poppy, history and your family. I never knew about the symbolism of the poppy. I like the flower and enjoy the annual bloom; it was the sleeping potion that put Dorothy to sleep on the yellow brick road in OZ, and, I know it's a source for opium. I so appreciate your eloquence and completely relate to your reasons for skipping the poppy in your remembrance of the fallen. I think I might do the same. Hope you are enjoying the fall.
dcrelief said…
Hi David.
What an awesome post. I wasn't sure if there were others experiencing similar feelings as I had.
I'm not too happy about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I feel my country has run this into the ground. So many families destroyed; nations toppled, cultures devasted.
Indeed, "Man does not know the way to peace."
I too, said no to the poppy this year. I enjoyed your article.
David said…
Dear SNEE,
Yes, I suppose the story of my family on my mother's side is quite extraordinary. It has always fascinated me, so I'm glad you enjoyed it too.
What I didn't know about the poppy was that it was the sleeping potion in "The Wizard of Oz". Being a film buff, I should be ashamed! But thanks for letting me know, anyway.
As for "enjoying" the fall, "enjoying" may be the wrong word, as over here the weather, after our little Indian Summer in October, is getting colder, windier, and wetter. But thanks for asking, and many thanks for your comment. It's nice to know that at least some one appreciates me!
With Very Best Wishes,
David said…
Dear Dixie,
Glad to have you as a comrade in being unhappy about both our countries' involvements abroad. What I read in the book I mentioned actually quite shocked me. I was already unsure about the reasons why we had gone to war, but when I learnt more, it sealed my opinion.
Maybe some will think us "unpatriotic" for not wearing a poppy, but I hope we both show we have good reasons for not doing so.
Thanks, Dixie.
With Very Best Wishes and much peace, your way,
klahanie said…
Dear David,
Apologies for not responding sooner. I have read and reread this superbly written, thoughtful and heartfelt posting.
I want to tell you that I agree with your take on the poppy. I was relieved that your two other notable commentors reacted in a way that understood your reasoning. I'm most assuredly with you on this and I admire your sentiments.
I also wanted to thank you for your guest posting on my site. Greatly appreciated during these times when I struggle to focus.
In peace and hope, your way, Gary
David said…
Dear Gary,
Thanks for your comment and concern, particularly during this difficult time for you.
I certainly hope things improve soon, and I will be in touch in due course.
With Very Best Wishes, your way,
klahanie said…
Cheers David and at almost three in the morning, I'm leaving this comment. Yikes!
David said…
Dear Gary,
Once again you are awake at absurd times of the night. Get some zeds, dude. Or failing that, write a comment to me! Oh, you've already done that.
Have you ever tried a hot, milky drink to send you to sleep? When in the midst of a psychotic breakdown, that is what many mental health staff recommended to me. To which I would often reply, "I don't think a hot, milky drink will cure it."
Anyway, Gare, I'm ringing you tonight, so beware!
With Very Best Wishes,
THE SNEE said…
Hi David,

Your comment is a hit over at THE SNEE. I'm completely amused, come by so you can giggle too. And I'm up at three in the morning your time too! Cheers to you David,
David said…
Dear Rebecca,
Thank you for leaving another comment. My, what a lucky boy I am to have two comments from your good self!
In return to your kind remarks, I would say that I was "completely amused" by your post, and I'm glad that the comment I left has tickled your and others funny bones.
Perhaps unlike Gary, it is because I go to bed so early that I often awake at around 3 am, with nothing to do but get on my computer. So you do indeed have to wake up very early in the morning to catch me out!
With Very Best Wishes,
The Manic Chef said…
Well David, I'm finally here reading this most EXCELLENT of posts! I applaud your courage in sharing this most important observation! I must agree with you 'whole wit', (is that a real statement? It just popped into my head, that can happen a lot)lol. I will state that I bought one, but I did not wear it. My uncle died in WW2, over in Germany I do believe, not sure. Some wars are needful, such as WW2, to stop the maniacs, such as Hitler, and the murder of Millions. But I too view the latest wars as a sham. So many give of their lives, but do they REALLY know WHY they give up their lives. Are they sucked into a falsehood due to propaganda? I believe so. So many go and fight while those that create the fight,stay behind. Cowards? What kind of leadership is that? It suggests to me that the ones fighting are just 'sacrificial' Guinea pigs for so-called World Order. New World Order to be precise. And it would seem, as you have stated, that anyone having a different view or opinion are discounted with disdain or are labeled unpatriotic. I mourn the loss of such lives due to ignorance or a delusional vision. Excellent writing! Later.....
David said…
Dear Manic Chef,
Thanks for that, and I'm glad you can respect my opinion.
I also agree that there seems to be a lot of propoganda surrounding our current involvemnts abroad. I wish it were different, but I find it hard to view the soldiers dying over there as anything but victims, who have been needlessly sacrificed for dubious ends.
Thanks once again.
All the best,

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