75 years ago on Friday, the Second World War ended in Europe. The best result, in the circumstances, as the losing side was responsible for some of the worst atrocities that have ever been committed. Worth celebrating. Well, yes. For those involved, Victory in Europe really was about the end of a six-year period of something similar to what we're undergoing right now. Similar, in the sense that a lot of the things you might normally do are forbidden. Different in the sense that we in 2020 are not at the immediate risk of being blown to bits by a bomb falling from the sky, or having to jog across France being shot at by blokes with machine guns. That second experience, of shooting and being shot at, is one that now a few generations of young men (in particular) have had only through the medium of (computer) gaming. I'm not denying that the games are good - in fact, I probably ought to keep my mouth shut on the subject as I haven't played the games - but I am going to say it: these games, celebrating the activities of soldiers in the Second World War (or other wars), are inappropriate. What does inappropriate mean? Well, not naughty in this context, rather something else. Celebrating war and death just shouldn't be happening.
Ah, but you've got it all wrong, Richardson. We're not celebrating war and death, rather we're celebrating the heroes who kept us safe in those times. Yes, there's a point in there. The people who fought and died and the people who fought and survived deserve to be recognised, and that recognition can be happen in a sombre and reflective mood. A street party was the right thing in 1945, but even without the threat of spreading a virus by close contact, a street party in 2020 is just wrong. Because it's not a celebration of some great evil conquered any more. That right belonged to people 75 years ago. The hijacking of remembrance (perhaps it should have a capital R in this case) seems to be a curious case of real nationalists trying to seize on the vaguely patriotic sentiments of the many and prod them into something more... what? Nationalist? Xenophobic? Conservative? All of those things? If you don't wear a poppy, you're failing in your duty to remember. If you wear a white poppy, then you're a traitor because you're remembering the dead on the other side. Yes, I bloody well am. No one should need to die in war. But the machinery of state made it impossible for your average person to dissent, to fully and thoroughly analyse the cause being fought for, to make a principled stand based on conscience. Perhaps now, in the age of the internet and instant personal communication, it would be a bigger failure than it ever has been to just go with what the government say, but I don't think you can hold an individual German soldier to account because the principle he was fighting for was bogus. So, I say, if that German lost his life fighting in war, I remember him.
I'll go further, in fact: my white poppy remembers the dead on all sides, but I think it also says something else. It acknowledges the terrible crimes that war, nationalism, xenophobia, racism, fear, all of these things, make human beings commit. It actively grieves for the loss to humanity that war causes, not just in battlefield casualties. War turns people into criminals, and those crimes are hateful and the crimes themselves unforgivable. But what kind of people does it make us if conflate the crime and the criminal? It is not in my power to forgive the dreadful crimes committed in the name of ideology during the Second World War. But painting war of any kind as a kind of good-against-evil battle is dangerous. When we do that, we run the risk of seeing war - as it so often portrayed in films or computer games - as the glorious goodies against the evil baddies, and that simplicity clouds the reality. How do you treat people who have done bad things? This might be the ultimate test of a person's central goodness. Don't look at how someone behaves to a person they agree with, someone they like, an equal or a superior. Look at how someone behaves to a waiter, the homeless man on the street, the criminal. Look at how they choose their job, how they make decisions, whether they themselves seek forgiveness for wrongs done. Whether they challenge prejudice...
So I will take the provocative step on Friday of wearing my white poppy. I will piss some people off. But it's time for that to happen, now. Those people need someone to show them how to think. Not what to think, but if nothing else just a call to use that power to think. Why is he wearing that white poppy? Because it is time to move on from celebrating victory in the Second World War to instead celebrating and seeking peace. Perhaps that should be the rebranding - not VE Day, but Peace in Europe day. Let us hope that we have not forgotten, because victory in Europe is all for nothing if there is no peace afterwards.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought