November is here and the poppies have begun their grinding and ubiquitous arrival.
‘Where is your poppy? Do you not support soldiers? Those men [sic] died for your freedom!’
Even being a mundane and menial pedestrian, I am confronted by these questions and statements at least a handful of times during November. I can only imagine the pressure experienced by recognised faces. I have stopped wondering why almost no talking-head on television is ever without their protective poppy.
I have a hard time responding to these statements because the answer is nuanced. It isn’t ‘no, no I don’t support the troops.’ I don’t even feel that way about contemporary soldiers, much less those who fought in significantly more justified conflicts in an historical context where the overt patriotism that leads one to join an army was much more excusable. It is more that everything about the Poppy Appeal rubs me the wrong way.
It is too popular. It is too solitary in its cherished position. It drips with nauseating patriotism. It appears vacant to the problems and reality of our times: an anachronism of the world destroyed by the war that created it. The mythos of the soldier, the romance of sacrifice for the nation, the indivisibility of the nation and the unwavering righteousness of national action are inescapably imparted by the ubiquity of the poppies. I want nothing to do with this.
In the best possible light, I view the modern soldier as misguided. An individual who believes they are undertaking a noble task. Someone who simply does not share my views on the institutions and systems for which they fight, or the nature of the enemy they strive to kill. This does not mean I hate them, or wish them to suffer. They should certainly receive care.
But there is a lot of pain and suffering in the world. There is a lot of pain and suffering on the streets of London. Pain arrived at for less self-incurred reasons than the pain experienced by soldiers. In my personal opinion, if you pick up a gun and go off to a foreign country and start shooting people, maybe you shouldn’t be so surprised if someone blows off your leg. I am not advocating a dismissal of our social responsibility to provide for those we send to war. But that is why we pay taxes. I do not appreciate being guilt tripped by society to help pay extra for the ramifications of a conflict I did not want to occur just because the MoD doesn’t have sufficient funds to pay for the soldiers it unnecessarily maimed. And I especially do not wish to place a symbol on my chest of my complacency to a portion of the system I despise: the pervasive power of the military industrial complex and an irrational fear of terrorism.
It is a shame that the sacrifices of the past, of those who fought against truly existential threats, are caught up in the politics of modernity. But so it goes. I didn’t choose for our states to sully their reputation. I didn’t choose where the money given to the British Legion goes. And regardless, I believe that to pay homage to those who died in the World Wars through a sectarian, militaristic and patriotic symbol is to entirely miss the point that their deaths should serve to prove. It displays a failure to learn from the past and a superficial understanding of the conflicts the action seeks to memorialize.
There are more deserving charities to which I would give money, charities that more greatly deserve annual national attention. And the popularity of the Poppies, their omnipresent autumnal stare, simply solidifies my resolve. It makes them eerie. An ominous reminder of the power of group-think. Of the narrow breadth of social empathy. Of the nationalistic fervour that still stalks our streets. A solemn testament to why we may always have soldiers for whom we must mourn, for whose shattered bodies we must care. A reminder of the sectarian World in which we live.