Do we have to wear a poppy in order to mourn the pain and loss of war?
It was this time last year that I first heard the Palestinian Ambassador speak on nations, division and reconciliation. As I left to go back to my room, a German friend who lives down the hall stopped me at the door, offered his hand, looked me in the eye and said nothing. We both went to see the poppies at the Tower the next day. A century on from World War One, I shared that with a German; we shook hands not as an act of reconciliation but warmth. There was no putting aside of history. We didn’t begrudge each other anything or kick the past into the grass. After all, the likelihood is that both our ancestors – our great or great-great grandfathers and uncles’ remains – lie somewhere in the earth. Ultimately, we can shake hands and come together over two men pointing guns at each other a century ago.
Neither of us wore poppies, red or white, but that doesn’t mean we don’t remember. We remember those who came home bearing the deeper wounds and scars of conflict that they carried for the rest of their lives and those ridiculed by their country because they refused to kill. More importantly, we remember the conflict and suffering that continues today. For those in Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan where the chances of an escape or peace look low and whose children will face little better.
To the man who spat at me on the Tube after asking where my poppy was, or the group of women who couldn’t understand that not wearing a poppy doesn’t make me a Nazi, I want to say this: I am not part of the anti-poppy brigade. I was horrified by an aerosol flamethrower attack on a cadet selling poppies. The fact that someone can take it upon themselves to assault a child for supporting a charity which aids members of the military is abhorrent. My not wearing of a poppy has nothing to do with aggression toward the military but with choice.
I see no shame in not wearing generations of dead on my jacket. I may not mourn in the accepted fashion, but I do still mourn for those lost in war. I grieve even more for those who are still being lost in conflict. Contemporary victims aren’t only armies: they’re Egyptian football fans, drowned migrants, Ukrainian farmers. Even more than that, they’re women in work or on the street, homosexuals or the ill who can’t afford healthcare. Many of them in the UK wear a poppy as well. I can’t think of a better illustration of what I’m trying to say. Men on the Tube, groups of women, armchair generals – judge me all you want. We have probably all lost relatives or friends in war and peace. Let me grieve in my own way.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons