There has been a flood of commentary on social media about Remembrance Day and poppies being worn to honour it. Not all are favourable and some, indeed, highly critical. These latter appear to come from a number of positions, including: guilt/resentment at Britain’s imperial past; an opposition to warmongering; anger at UK Armed Forces being used internally as armed police (especially in Ulster); opposition to foreign interventions (such as Iraq and Afghanistan); and even a refusal to embrace this aspect of the British state by hard-line nationalists.
At the risk of opprobrium, each of those groups does have a point. Those holding any of those views do so sincerely and, as they break no law and hold their views peaceably, are entitled to them—and even to express them. But in the context of Remembrance Day and of wearing poppies to mark it, their opposition is misguided.
As America has practiced since WW2, so Britain’s foreign policy in its imperial heyday (and, some would argue even today) was to protect commerce, exploit global resources and to resist those who would threaten that. Not a particularly noble motivation but it made Britain and most of its population rich, as it has America more recently. Whether Britain should still hold the Falklands/Malvinas or Gibraltar or other residual specks around the globe or not is a thorny problem with no obvious solution. Similarly, whether there is any mandate to be the World’s Policeman’s sidekick deserves considerable debate.
But the Remembrance poppy marks none of that. Despite egregious attempts by some establishment figures—especially in the Tory Party—to conflate defence, a global UK role and a Dunkirk Spirit that validates the Union, it is no such thing. People who have served in our Armed Forces have often done so with little choice. From dispossessed Highlanders who flooded kilted regiments from Torres Vedras to Waterloo, to their sons at Bombay or Balaklava, from the Pals Battalion enthusiasts of WWI to the more sober conscripts of WW2 to the National Service teenagers in Korea, millions fought and millions died.
There is a moral argument that WWI was caused by Britain’s paranoia about being top dog as much as Imperial German aggression—just as the Japanese might argue that the US stranglehold on its raw materials justified the aggressive risk they took at Pearl Harbor. But British Tommies of 1914 had no more option to argue such a case than their equivalent GIs had in 1941.
Not to disparage those who signed up from a spirit to engage the Hun or whatever the bête noir du jour was, the vast bulk went, trained, served—and sometimes died—because they saw it as their duty. Their motivation was neither politics, nor ambition, nor greed, nor even hatred. They did it because they felt they must, so they could hold their heads high because they—and the families they left behind—had risked all to secure what all believed to be a worthwhile, if not better, life.
We all make sacrifices to preserve our community, our culture, our civilisation. But none are as great as those we ask of our armed forces. It is to honour those millions and their selfless service which has allowed all of us to enjoy the comparatively comfy lives we do. My grandad lost a leg in Flanders; my dad drove a tank through the unbearable heat of Libya; the worst I have ever had to endure was scout camp.
That is why I wear a poppy every year for them—and for all their comrades—with humility and gratitude. Others may do what their conscience dictates but Remembrance should not be about politics.