by Sara Helen Binney
It was November, and the school hall was packed with pupils and teachers freed from lessons. In the festive atmosphere people mingled and chattered and joked. A few nervously practiced their Bible readings; I stood, arms crossed, before a school administrator. She shook her collection box.
‘Poppy?’ she said. It wasn’t a question.
I said, ‘no.’ I doubt I was very polite – I was sixteen, angry and definite.
‘You have to wear a poppy, for the service,’ she said.
‘Why?’ I demanded.
‘Everyone has to wear a poppy.’
‘But I don’t agree with it. Can’t I refuse?’
‘You have to take a poppy – just make a donation.’
Neither of my parents had ever worn a poppy. They brought me up listening to the anti-war songs of the folk revival, and took me to CND marches while I still struggled to pronounce ‘disarmament’. But at school, saying no wasn’t an option. I eventually put a penny in the box.
Underneath them all was a more important question: why commemorate this war at all?
Nobody gave me a good answer, then, to my series of questions. Why was the service religious –what exactly did Christianity, with its message of turning the other cheek, have to do with war? Why were we coerced into this ritual, when the coercion obliterated its meaning? Why did we have to pay money – wasn’t the government taking care of its veterans? Why did we only commemorate the soldiers from that war – what about everybody else, and what about other wars? And why, for something so grim and terrible, did it feel like a celebration?
Underneath them all was a more important question: why commemorate this war at all? The answer has turned into slogans. ‘Lest we forget’ – ‘never again’: we must remember past wars – all of them, not just the first World War – so we can avoid such conflict in the future. This is what the red poppy symbolises. But my refusal was not – is not – an attempt to forget. Those songs I was raised with – No Man’s Land, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Where Have All The Flowers Gone – are still with me, and I’m sure they’ll remain: ‘lest we forget’ is not an empty phrase to me. But it seems to have become – or to have always been – a hollow one. At school, I knew kids who were genuinely excited about the manoeuvres of Bismarck or the failure of appeasement – their excitement disgusted me. I see the same thing in the discussions in the media of the first World War – the same enthusiasm, the same relish. The Express quotes a commuter saying ‘how lovely [the poppies] were’ and described those who took them down as ‘killjoys’. Is ‘joy’ really what we are supposed to feel on Remembrance day?
At school I couldn’t say no – I just managed ‘not in my name’. I wore a badge with that slogan when my parents took me to protest against the Iraq war in 2003. I was certain, in that vast sea of people in Glasgow, that this was how people changed the world. Five years later I went back to protest against the same war’s continuation. I went with a single friend, and as we stood with the sparse, angry crowd, we felt as hopeless as the songs I’d learnt. Bogle’s words were – and are – still true: it’s all happened again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Each repetition could be a different country, a different conflict – a different set of lives lost. They ring in the song like funeral bells. I want that repetition to end.
After I left school, I didn’t wear a poppy for years. I was finally free to say no – and I still do.
No: I will not encourage ‘the heavy weight of mythology that hangs around WW1’, nor the easy narrative that upholds it. We beat the bad guys and came home heroes: of course that’s true. But it is not the only truth. What about the civilians who were killed, the ‘collateral damage’? What about the conscientious objectors? What about those who came home to no support, no aid? ‘We’, Britain, have done heroic things, good things; we have also committed atrocities. We cannot forget the one in favour of the other. I refuse to ignore the ambiguities of war.
And no: I will not narrow my remembrance into nationalist trenches. I am a citizen of two countries; I am loyal, in my way, to three nations. I refuse to think only of the British soldiers who have died in war – just as ‘soldiers’ doesn’t cover the extent of lives lost and devastated, ‘British’, too, isn’t enough. Every single person who has been wounded physically or psychologically in the course of war deserves our remembrance. I refuse to ignore a single one of them.
To the red poppies, too, I say no: I will not be coerced into wearing an empty symbol. The blood red poppy should stand out; it should shock. And yet, when newscasters and politicians wear them as a matter of course, and any who refuse (such as Jon Snow and Charlene White) face public calls for their sacking, they lose their power. If we wear our poppies not out of choice, but as a matter of course, or, as at my school, out of coercion, we risk slipping into the very thing they are supposed to guard against: forgetfulness. I refuse to forget. I refuse, too, to accept that veterans should be supported by charity and not by the government which created them – so I will not buy into the poppy appeal.
‘We’, Britain, have done heroic things, good things; we have also committed atrocities. We cannot forget the one in favour of the other. I refuse to ignore the ambiguities of war.
But it is not enough to simply refuse. To not wear a red poppy seems to me to say nothing. This year, instead, I do wear a poppy – just not the Royal British Legion one. My poppy is white: white for peace; white for conscientious objection. White is the colour of active protest – the colour of saying no. As I wear it, I hope people notice, and think – I hope some of them will start conversations because of it. Speaking about war, sharing the multifaceted, contradictory memories and stories we have, is the only way to guard against forgetting. It is vital that we keep talking about the deaths, the devastations, the atrocities of all wars – in the trenches, yes, but in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, too. It is too late for ‘lest we forget’, too late for ‘never again’: it is time to stop, and say no.