Every November, poppies begin adorning political lapels and pop-up stands selling them appear in the doorways of post offices and other public buildings. They’re meant to serve as a reminder of the sacrifices of the military, and it’s not uncommon to see them worn by veterans, but one 90-year-old World War II veteran says he won’t be wearing his anymore.
His blistering opinion piece for The Guardian articulates the shift from an important cultural symbol reminding people of the terrible cost of war to something much darker, and he argues that the poppy has become too corrupt for him to wear with pride.
The poppy has been a symbol of remembrance since 1920, when it was added to Remembrance Day events commemorating the end of the First World War. Inspired by “In Flanders Fields,” a poem which makes numerous allusions to the red poppies growing over the bodies of the dead, poppies are an important part of events in the United Kingdom, Canada and various Commonwealth countries as well as the United States. Here in the United States, for example, they’re sold and the funds provide money for veterans’ services.
In this opinion piece, Harry Leslie Smith says: “I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.”
In an era of seemingly constant war paired with growing restrictions on civil liberties in the UK and abroad, Smith’s words are both searing and timely. He points out that war is heinous and terrible, and that it’s usually fought by the lowest classes of society, those least able to seek alternatives to the military. He fears growing nationalism in the United Kingdom, and argues that the festivities planned to commemorate the 1914 anniversary of the start of the First World War are nothing short of ghoulish.
All of his points are strongly made for an era when war is heavily glorified and often discussed in the media as something with minimal costs. Today, military forces are much smaller, and do much more of their work from a very remote distance; it’s possible to kill thousands of people by launching weapons from ships or aircraft far from the battlefield, or even to pilot a drone in the Middle East from a military installation in the United States. War features heavily in video games and other entertainment, while the military continues to prey on low-income people and those in disadvantaged social groups looking for opportunities and desperate for a way out.
Remembrance Day has shifted over the almost 100 years from its creation; at one time, it was a sombre opportunity to reflect on the lives lost and the high burden of a war that touched many people very directly. Today, it’s become an opportunity for sales at department stores and motivational political speeches, many of which, Smith argues, serve to remind people of a nebulous threat that requires sacrifices to civil liberties and independence.
His piece also makes a sharp point about the emergence of the middle class after the Second World War, and the battles fought on domestic soil to provide more opportunities to everyday Britons (and Americans, across the pond). He argues that a larger political theme overlies the commercialization of war: a theme of austerity and ignoring the walking wounded at home, many of whom are in urgent need of aid.
His fiery response to the poppy tradition serves as a reminder that many veterans, especially older veterans who hold a symbolic value because of the passing of their generation, find themselves used as tools by their governments. His refusal of such a role in such a public forum attracted more than 1,500 comments within a matter of days, and struck a deep chord with many readers in a nation facing harsh austerity measures, growing civil unrest and vast intrusions on civil liberties. Could Harry Leslie Smith have sparked a revolt?
Photo credit: tim_d via flickr.