Thank Christ for that, eh?
You can interpret that headline however you wish. This post is a discussion about the way that Remembrance (and remembrance) takes place, with a diversion into an argument that seems to rile a certain set of people beyond all reason.
Let's start by examining the question of what the right way to celebrate the people who fought and died to preserve the freedoms that we currently enjoy. Celebrate is the right word: I do not mean it in the sense of having a jolly old knees-up in the pub, but rather the act of acknowledgement. How do we sensibly make it a part of our lives in 2020 that in the past some of our ancestors put their lives at stake, and in many cases lost their lives, in order to defeat a terrible, murderous regime? Well, I have a suggestion that might rankle with some. Dressing up as those very people and dancing on the White Cliffs of Dover is not the way to remember the lives lost. The Second World War was not, as far as I can tell, a caper. It resulted in the deaths of getting on for a hundred million people, both military and civilian. It was a rare example of a war with a just cause, although the methods of its prosecution are not necessarily justified in the same way. That it has elevated one man in particular to the status of great hero despite his failure to achieve goodness in a lot of his actions is an anomaly, worth discussing, but not here, except to say that the very celebration of that individual can have the effect of erasing some of the badness just as the victory and the justness of the fight have erased some of the badness of the war itself.
Lest we forget, though, war is not glorious or honourable. It is very rarely undertaken for ends that are unambiguously right and it has not been the last resort of desperation in the past. It results in the deaths and displacement of countless people for whom the political outcome of the war is moot. It asks people who do not want to fight, who do not want to kill their fellow man, to do exactly that. To kill people who may not - indeed, probably don't - share the political convictions of those who made the decision to go to war in the first place. In short, war is to be avoided at almost any cost.
Remembrance is a tricky balancing act, then. People have died so that I might have the freedom to write this piece, to keep Europe free of fascist dictatorships (!), to defend me from the horrors of being a victim of an attack on civilian targets. People have died because of the mule-headedness of politicians. People have died because the ego of individual politicians demanded it. Sometimes, people who were basically good did terrible things to their fellow men, often in the mistaken belief of righteousness, and in some cases what war brought out was a tendency among many people to go along with what they were told or what the mob wanted despite the awfulness. Sometimes people's cruelty and desire for power over their fellow man took over and made them do things that in isolation look frankly unbelievable. Sometimes, people died to save their fellows or in pursuit of victory over a truly terrible enemy. Sometimes, people who did terrible things died at the hands of those who might not have wished it to be that way, but could see no other, better way.
What does all this mean? My choice to wear a white poppy is astonishingly controversial, given that last paragraph. It's also surprisingly controversial given that, by definition, 'all the victims of war' includes those who fought on the side of Great Britain. What seems to provoke anger is that I am actively acknowledging the deaths of those on the other side. Whether that be Germans in WWII, Germans in WWI, Taliban Fighters in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden himself... The argument runs that in doing so I disrespect the people who fought and died on my behalf.
Simply: no. Being a pacifist does not mean that I am unpatriotic, although the concept of patriotism itself is far from uncontroversial. Being pacifistic does not mean that I cannot appreciate the sacrifice that some people made - in a context where the decision to be part of the fight was not a career choice - to defend this country and by extension the world against great evil. I can think it sad that someone like Osama Bin Laden had to die for the world to be a more peaceful place; he was still a man, whatever his crimes. In a way, it makes me wish that there was a God who could show him, from the safety of heaven, what great sadness he caused. Who could put an arm around him, and while offering him forgiveness, show him why what he did was wrong. The God that the Bible tells me about would not refuse to mourn for the death of any man, even the greatest of all the sinners. And that - as far as I can tell - is the problem with the White Poppy. That peace requires forgiveness. That the achievement of peace is not about celebrating victory, but about celebrating the end of war. That the red poppy, as it is worn today in 2020, does not make that clear: that remembrance is not about the sacrifice that some made for this country, but that the sacrifice was for peace itself. That is what makes the sacrifice worthwhile. It is not dulce et decorum to die pro patria, but rather for the cause of peace.
The issue has been co-opted by folk who see the white poppy as something that a coward would choose. Well, I am prepared to need to be brave to face the criticism I will attract for this conscious decision to make myself different. It equally attracts criticism of the form: you think you're so clever with your white poppy... I think in some cases this is a cry of anguish, that anyone could have a different view of the right way to remember. In some, it is a more calculated, purely political, act, where pacifism is intentionally and wrongly conflated with other left-leaning political ideals, and where it is attacked from the right as being merely cowardly and not the outcome of deep consideration. Perhaps - and this might be my answer for this year - the thing to do is to wear both, or even a sort of Tudor amalgamation of the two.
In any case, I think that those people who died fighting against Nazi Germany in the Second World War would be disappointed to think that a kind of tyranny of ideas had taken over and that a dissenting view could not be held in public. That, after all, is where it starts to go wrong...
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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought