By Aian Macpherson
I feel a dilemma about wearing the red poppy for Remembrance Day. I have worn a red poppy every year for as long as I can remember but I have the feeling that what it meant, what the poppy symbolised, is changing. In the end, I decided to wear a red poppy and white poppy together. This is why…
At the heart of this dilemma lies the question of what the purpose of remembrance is. The poppy has become a symbol of remembrance because it grew in the fields churned up by the artillery of the First World War; it was seen growing in the summers of; 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918. As the war progressed, the poem “In Flanders Fields” was published by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. The first verse reads:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
This poem was then seen by an American lady, Miss Moina Michael and through a series of events and meetings the idea of the remembrance poppy was born. The poppy was first worn in an official capacity on the 14th February 1919 in Carnegie Hall, New York City.
It a French woman by the name of Madame Anna E Guérin who first saw the potential of the Memorial Poppy in raising funds for those in need, particularly for the benefit of children orphaned as a result of war. It was through Madame Guérin that the poppy arrived in Britain in 1921 and became the symbol of The British Legion. The sale of artificial poppies was from that year used to raise funds for ex-servicemen in need of welfare and financial support.
So far, so good. The poppy was used to remember the tragedy – rows of graves and those who had lost their lives – and it was and is used to raise money for those affected by war. Elsewhere in the world this has been more focused upon children. Here in Britain, it has always had a focus on ex-servicemen and their families. In both cases it is about collective provision for those wounded or affected by conflict.
Why then wear a white poppy? The white poppy was first seen in 1933 and was instigated by the Co-operative Women’s Guild for wearing on Armistice Day (called Remembrance Day after WWII). Now overseen by the Peace Pledge Union, a white poppy more particularly sets apart a supporter of peace and denotes a desire to end war.
I question wearing a red poppy alone because I have felt a shift from the remembrance of tragedy and futility, with some commitment in church services at least, to hope and work for peace, to the nationalistic, glorification of military service. The British Legion themselves has reportedly noticed this sea change and as of this year is trying to reassert the poppy for remembrance and provision. They are warning against fraudulent poppy sellers and the propaganda of the far right.
Allow me to lay my cards upon the table, I used to be a pacifist. But I now think that to love one’s neighbour one must sometimes be prepared to wade in on their behalf. In classical ethical terms I am referring to ‘Just War Theory’.
A ‘Just War’ requires (amongst other things) that
- War is fought only in the interests of peace
- War is fought only in the interests of another
A soldier cannot take responsibility for deciding whether these criteria are applied to each conflict but a government can.
To bring about war only in the interests of others is make no consideration of potential personal or national gain: it is to make decisions out of love for another. Do we truly believe any government to be that generous? No, because national governments are not selfless.
War in the interests of peace is another reason claimed for the wars of the 21st-century. But has any war achieved and end to war? No.
So the dilemma.
Unless I can trust that my government is completely selfless in its decision to go to war on any and every occasion, that it did so only with the intention of defending its own people or those of its neighbour against an aggressive and destructive opponent and that my government did this only with interest in restoring peace for all, can I see war as justifiable. But I do not trust any government to act this way. War is never pure in motive and never fruitful for peace.
On the other hand I do not believe inaction, or even civil disobedience and active pacifism is, on the national stage, enough. In this world, something may be futile and needful, ugly but full of virtue, selfish but also giving.
As long as the focus of remembrance is upon the tragedy and futility of war the focus is also on peace. The very activity of fundraising is an active search for peace in individual lives, peace of mind or peace for the circumstance in which people find themselves. Peace is, after all, something that must be actively pursued. God wants us to be in a state of ‘Shalom’. Not just the absence of war but a wholeness of life, peace in abundance, well-being, righteousness (right relationship) with both God, our neighbour, and creation. Peace, perfect peace.
But as the poppy comes to symbolise ‘the hero’, we begin to perhaps love the wrong thing. J. R. R. Tolkien, himself a veteran of the First World War trenches, writes in his famous work, The Lord of the Rings, that war must be fought in defence against a destroyer who would devour the world but that we should not love the weapon for its clinical effectiveness nor the warrior for their glory but only that which they defend.
I will continue to wear the red poppy; ‘lest we forget’. But I will also from time to time wear the white lest we forget what we are remembering. The Red poppy has a purpose, the act of seeking peace by providing for the needs of people, real human lives that need and deserve the support of their neighbour. But I will also wear the white poppy, to make it clear that I wear the red poppy to remember the tragedy and the ultimate failure of all war.
War may be necessary but it is not something to honour let alone celebrate. It should be remembered with sorrow and penitence. It is human lives that should be celebrated for what they were and mourned for what they could have been.
P.S. I am open to understand more. Question me and inform me. I know and love some committed pacifists and some who have served in the armed forces. I hope that I honour you all. I love each of you.