In the interest of transparency, I must disclose that I am a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve at Oxford University Air Squadron and intend on joining the RAF after graduating. My views are entirely personal and do not reflect those of my colleagues at the squadron, or the wider United Kingdom’s Armed Forces. I have brought this to light in order to mitigate the potential for bias to be claimed in my letter and have done my utmost to remain objective and respond entirely to Zaman’s article, not to debate attitudes towards war.
Recently, Zaman Keither-Esmail of The Oxford Blue wrote a piece explaining her decision to “refuse to wear the red remembrance poppy”. Upon reading the piece, I felt that it unfairly characterised the position of the Royal British Legion and prepared this counter to defend the poppies’ important role in remembering the sacrifices made by Commonwealth soldiers. Given the nature of remembrance – remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice – this piece is not a criticism of her not wearing a poppy. It is, after all, contradictory to remember those who secured individual liberty and freedom, yet to take issue with someone exercising that freedom.
The main criticism lies in the statement that the poppy is a symbol of ‘British exceptionalism’ which puts ‘British soldiers above all others’. This statement is inherently incorrect. Whilst true that the poppy has been adopted by Britain, its utilisation in remembrance actually originates from the United States. Inspired by the poem, “In Flanders Field”, written by a Canadian poet, Professor Moina Michale sold silk poppies in her hometown to raise money for returning veterans. The Royal British Legion started selling poppies in 1921, by which point both the National American Legion and France had already adopted the poppy as a sign of remembrance. Not only, then, was the remembrance poppy not established in Britain – nullifying the suggestion of ‘British exceptionalism’ – but it was adopted trans-continentally prior to Britain’s use of it.
Indeed, even today – 100 years since the National American Legion first started wearing poppies – the symbol is worn globally: in Canada, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand. This separation of ‘British exceptionalism’ and reality becomes even more apparent when one considers the ceramic poppies placed outside the Tower of London. Each poppy represented a Commonwealth soldier’s death – not a British soldier’s death – and, at their removal, poppies were given to dignitaries from India, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, and South Africa, reflecting the poppies multi-national embracement.
Zaman’s article also claims that the poppy ‘has become less and less associated with its original message, that a war such as WWI should “never again” happen’. Again, this is inaccurate – each year military leaders reiterate that sentiment at remembrance events nationally, and in the 102 years since WWI ended, there have been fewer than half the number of British military deaths than between 1914 and 1918 alone. The poppy also remembers these tragic deaths. If one studies the statistics of post-WWII deaths – a more ‘modern’ era of warfare, following the establishment of the Geneva Convention – this figure falls to less than 6%, demonstrating the commitment from military leaders across the world since 1945 to ensure warfare in this manner should ‘never again’ happen.
From this perspective, I implore writers to be careful in their rhetoric. Whilst it is their decision whether or not to wear a poppy, given that the money raised is directly used to support veterans, one must object to writers potentially swaying the decision of others over poppies on the premise of misinformed sentiment. The poppy is not a political symbol. Its only legal use is to raise money, and it is a symbol that has been adopted across the world, including in countries that have never been under British control – a far cry from ‘British Exceptionalism’.
My other criticism comes from a more theoretical standpoint. Zaman questions the ‘official meaning’ of the poppy, bringing to light the atrocities committed in war. As per the RBL, the official usage of the poppy is to ‘remember’, not to ‘celebrate’. Whilst this appears unimportant, there are distinct differences in the connotations between the two. By comparing remembrance to celebrating the fire-bombing of Dresden, Zaman is not only suggesting that today’s military would endorse such an action, but she is applying today’s moral standards to a war that was fought in a different era, under very different geo-political circumstances – a fallacy that historians frequently criticise. It is important to note that since the establishment of the Geneva Convention, Britain and her NATO allies have done their utmost to uphold the standards expected, prosecuting individuals who do not, demonstrating their commitment to ensure that such acts are not glorified or celebrated.
The poppy does not celebrate acts of war, and over ensuing years, the MOD has become ever conscious of its global footprint, spending almost £20,000,000,000 on foreign aid in the last decade alone. Of course, this is no excuse for individuals who ‘committed atrocities and war crimes’, and the military does not pretend that it is. Although Churchill declared the allied Strategic Bombing Campaign as ‘the means to victory’ in 1940, by 1945, understanding the civilian implications of the campaign, he did not mention – let alone celebrate – Bomber Command during his VE day speech. In fact, in creating the Bomber Command memorial, the military took particular care to ensure that the memorials’ inscription in no way celebrated events such as Dresden, but, instead, was devoted purely to the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice; after all, literature prior to WWI noted the role of a solder as, ‘theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die’. Thus, to not wear a poppy based on the objection of orders given to soldiers is to politicise a non-political symbol, denying individuals, who had no say in the matter, remembrance for their service and sacrifice.
Whilst it is entirely in one’s right to decide whether or not they wish to wear a poppy, I must be critical of a piece such as Zamans. Prominent writers of student newspapers making claims about such an important matter can lead to wide-spread misinformation, albeit unintentionally. Whilst this is dangerous at the best of times, when the ramifications may include lower levels of donations to a charity which serves to help the members of the Armed Forces and their families it becomes of particular importance to nip in the bud.
– Jari Morganti, Corpus Christi
I hope this letter finds you well. While I have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) the general standard of your journalism, I regret to inform you that I have become increasingly disillusioned with your paper. As a publication that claims to keep up with current affairs as well as get to the bottom of the important things in life, the fact that I have not yet spotted an article contributing to the ‘Is it allowed and acceptable to start Christmas season from November 1st’ debate is galling. It is, I am sure you will now realise, a glaring omission.
To contribute my twopenneth, it is of course Christmas season and has been since it hit midnight 01/11/2020 – I write this, I confess, whilst eating my umpteenth mince pie and listening to Santa Baby. I hope to see an appropriately titled article in an appropriate section soon.
– Anon, Trinity College