It was brought to my attention today that at about this time last year, Piers Morgan had a heated debate with a representative of the Peace Pledge Union, who promote the wearing of a white, rather than a red, poppy. The thrust of his argument seems to be that by including enemy combatants in the list of people that the white poppy remembers, that means that the wearer of the white poppy is celebrating ISIS fighters, or Nazis. Well, let's try to pull that apart a bit.
The first thing is to say that the white poppy, as it is described by the PPU itself, is about remembering all the people who die in conflict. Their words: "There are three elements to the meaning of white poppies. They represent remembrance for all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war." The official line on the red poppy is that it commemorates "all those who lost their lives on active service in all conflicts; from the beginning of the First World War right up to the present day. It also honours the contribution of civilian services and the uniformed services which contribute to national peace and security and acknowledges innocent civilians who have lost their lives in conflict and acts of terrorism." If the white poppy tries to do anything differently, it seems that what it does is actively commemorate those people who lost their lives in war, whichever side they were fighting for. Hence, I think, the accusation that it equally actively commemorates the aforementioned ISIS fighters and Nazis.
There's an important distinction to be made, though, between the lives of the people who have died, and the cause for which they were fighting. The mistake in the line of argument used by Morgan is to conflate the two. I can, by way of an example, know that someone who held beliefs I do not share (we'll use an actual Nazi for the sake of this argument) died as a result of conflict, and be sad about that fact. I can be disappointed that the world was such that those beliefs led to a terrible destructive conflict for the six years of the Second World War, and I can be sad that people lost their lives as a result of that conflict, even if they died fighting for a set of beliefs I do not share. I can - and I am - saddened by the loss of life even of those who fight for ISIS, whose cause I do not support. There is no chance to put forward the value of peace, to promote the very cause for which British service people have died, to someone who is already dead. That is the price, I think, of conflict. The struggle is to disentangle the remembrance of the dead from the cause for which they were fighting. In the case of the Second World War, it is clear that there was real justification for going to war, to fight against the Nazi regime and all that it did. That fact, brought up as it is when we remember war dead, is not what the act of remembrance is for, though. The fact that people fought and died to free the world from the Nazis and their allies is worth remembering. But it is not the same as remembering all the victims of war, whatever cause they were fighting for.
Perhaps Morgan is too bold, in the argument as he makes it, in reducing all German WWII fighters to Nazis. That, at least in part, is the problem. It is simplistic to separate the world into them and us, and to lump all of them in together. To be clear: I have no doubt that in making this point I would be accused of celebrating dead ISIS fighters, or Nazis, or whatever hateful regime fills that particular role in this argument, and, if I were arguing with Piers Morgan, he would consider the argument won. But that is the exact thing I want to challenge, and without an appreciation of the distinction I have made, and a sense of why it matters, the argument is not settled. With that distinction in place, there is no difference in lamenting the death of an ISIS fighter and a British soldier. They both needlessly lost their lives in war. I think the issue is that blame, for starting it, for having the awful beliefs in the first place, is driving the desire to rule out those lost lives from the act of remembrance. But the fact of a person's being on the side that made the conflict happen does not mean that person's death is less lamentable, even if they wholeheartedly shared the beliefs. As the Gospel of Matthew has it: "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
Perhaps there is something in the second and third element of the white poppy's symbolism that is not there in the red. The commitment to peace, and the challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war. It's a difficult and touchy area. I can, and I do, acknowledge the need, with the way the world is, for the UK to have professional, well-trained and disciplined armed forces, whilst also lamenting the fact that the world is that way. It is conceivable, if unlikely, that there might be a truly peaceful future for mankind. But it is exactly by remembering the loss of life, the damage caused of whatever type, on both sides and by both sides, that such a peaceful future might be created.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought