How Can We Appropriately Remember Those Who Die in War?


Today is the day of commemoration for those killed in war. Just like the United States’ Veterans Day holiday, “Remembrance Day” is a national holiday in much of Europe, and in the UK and many other Commonwealth nations it is marked by wearing red commemorative Poppies – a symbol of post WWI rejuvenation.

Yet, in a frank — and at times openly insulting — editorial piece, acclaimed journalist Robert Fisk accuses those who wear poppies of “mocking the dead.” I disagree with Fisk’s point of view, although he is entitled to his personal feelings about respecting veterans. His comments certainly raise questions about how we as a society can appropriately and respectfully mark this important day of remembrance.

The root of Fisk’s anger has two sources. Firstly, that those who wear the poppy today have not experienced the horrors and loss of war in the manner of our grandparent’s generation. We are — and Fisk includes himself in this category — “un-worthy” of wearing such symbols.

Secondly, where Fisk really loses his decorum, the poppy has become increasingly seen as a politically correct “fashion symbol” by the “pathetic creatures” that work in contemporary politics. To Fisk, they disrespect the memory of the dead by wearing poppies to curry public favor, rather then out of heartfelt sentiments.

I don’t want to dwell on Fisk’s choice of words too long. Though frankly offensive, his perspective is clearly personally informed by memories of his deceased veteran father and work in the Middle East. But he is nonetheless wrong to attack the symbol of the poppy in this way.

For a start, his expectation that only veterans themselves can and should wear poppies is unrealistic and disproportionate. To belittle our entire generation because we have not had to go to a major war seems a strange thing; was it not this privilege of a peaceful life that the last generation fought and died for in the first place? It is a wonderful fact that we do not live in times where every young person in the country must put on a uniform and fight.

Similarly, giving veterans the sole monopoly on experiencing the grief and pain wartime losses can inflict is also false. The poppy is a symbol that holds equal significance for family and loved ones.

Yet, to get to the core of the matter — is wearing such a symbol actually respectful in itself? I would agree with Fisk to a certain extent when he accuses some people of wearing poppies without a due appreciation of its history and meaning. It is probably worth reminding people of the solemnity of the occasional, especially in European nations where today’s public holiday will create a worker friendly long-weekend.

Yet, it is not Fisk or anyone else’s’ place to judge what is appropriate. Take the communal minutes silence at 11: how one personally reflects or contemplates at this moment is a matter of internal choice. Daydream if you wish, but that is not why the entire country goes quiet, and many will use the occasion to pray or reflect.

Remembering the dead is clearly a solemn part of our joint history, and in this age of politically controversial wars, many might use the occasion to lambast what they view as false sentiment. But their aggression is misplaced. The very fact that poppies exist at all demonstrates the respect underlying this communal tradition.

Photo Credit: coffeefish94