This year will be the second year I’m choosing not to wear a poppy in November. In our society not wearing a poppy can cause outrage; it’s taken as a political statement and a symbol of rebellion, but why should it be? Can the claim that it’s a symbol of respect still be made if you’re only wearing one as a result of coercion? Every year the same debate reignites, with more and more think pieces surfacing and chipping in with their own two cents, but it’s time we learned that this witch hunt is an unnecessary and backwards attack surrounding what is supposed to be a symbolic gesture of respect.
My main source of discomfort with the poppy lies in my belief that it has become warped from the reality it was adopted to represent. I worry that wearing one, and more importantly feeling coerced to do so, leads to the glorification and normalisation of military intervention as a respected political outcome, rather than just a last resort. The blood red poppy has undisputedly become a politicised symbol used to lionise war, it’s the first thing an eye will catch when walking past someone on the street, or watching them on the news, but what does it say? You only have to look at Britain’s political history to discern that the poppy isn’t an emblem of “never again”; it’s not a warning of the horrific realities of war, instead it embraces an almost triumphant rhetoric. To quote Harry Leslie Smith, a veteran old enough to remember the “Great War” from experience, the poppy has become but a “patriotic bloodstain”.
By policing who is and isn’t wearing a poppy we defer the questioning of the morality behind Britain’s war efforts and effectively sanitise the idea of war. Dawning a poppy seems to me like an act of compliance among Britain’s dubious war efforts in recent years. At this time of year, to be seen not wearing one and to question the government’s trigger happy attitudes is apparently a mark of disrespect. You have to tread lightly to assure your acquaintances that your stance is a legitimate opposition to the government’s manipulative endorsement of the poppy to create unquestioned authoritative attitude in regards to war, and not a vendetta against the individuals fighting in combat zones.
Identifying as working class adds another layer of complexity to this issue as the British Army resembles society in that the majority of those come from working class backgrounds. Historically, the working class have been sent to a war decided upon by the elite rulers taking precedence in Westminster. A troubling result of this is the divisiveness which arises when you’ve grown up in a working class community, but don’t identify with the reasons given for endorsing a poppy. In working class communities where the people you went to school with join the army when they’re of age, following the footsteps of family members and neighbours, the refusal to wear the poppy can feel more like a rejection of their work rather than what it is: the refusal to show support to a government willing to send more people off to war when it’s deemed necessary.
There’s an implication that by not showing support on the lapel of your winter coat that you have no respect for those people, and this creates an insidious and implicit link between your support and how you express it. I don’t wear any type of charitable or political symbol on my clothes but it’s somehow worse when my outfit is lacking a poppy. I would never doubt the need of the Poppy Appeal as a charity, their work is obviously seminal to the lives of veterans, but wearing a poppy isn’t the only way to actually support them. The very fact that a charity is responsible for providing support proves once again that it’s the people in our communities who feel the harshest burdens of the government’s war who are left to deal with the consequences and sort out their own solutions.
My argument is that the decision to show your support through wearing a poppy should remain voluntary, and not the result of any direct coercion or encompassing societal pressure. I don’t believe war is ever a justified means to an end in any conflict, and I find the mass acceptance troubling. There’s a slippery slope with the universal expectation that everyone shows support through the same means, because ultimately the people who are needed to support the soldiers find themselves in a compromised position where criticising the war appears to contradict their wish to show and provide support, when it shouldn’t be. Whether you choose to wear a poppy or not, I firmly believe that it should remain a choice free from coercion and assumptions, and that no one has a right to interrogate you on your decision.
[Stacey Anderson -@staceyanders0n]