Newsreaders should wear their poppies, with humility

By Michael Portillo (THE TIMES, 12/11/06):

In the week that American people displayed their disappointment over the war in Iraq, in Britain the poppy, symbol of remembrance, was drawn into controversy.

Jonathan Bartley, the director of a Christian think tank, Ekklesia, has urged people to wear white poppies, which he believes to be more Christian. He argues that political correctness obliges public figures to wear red ones or face uproar. Certainly Channel 4’s Jon Snow attracts criticism for refusing to sport a poppy while on air. He believes that newscasters should avoid wearing “anything that represents any kind of statement”.

At a time when even President Bush has lost confidence in what the Iraq war is achieving, we are bound to ask: what is it that we remember at this time of year? Are we commemorating the deaths of those who did their duty, or are we also celebrating the justness of the causes for which they fell?

The symbolic poppy had its origin in Flanders field. Growing in profusion among the detritus of war, poppies gave the appearance of drops of blood spattered across the mud. In the first world war the British Empire lost a million dead, 700,000 from these islands. At the conflict’s end the nation mourned a lost generation. But when the tradition of wearing poppies began in 1921, the grief for Britain’s fallen youth was still tempered by a sense of righteous victory. War memorials bore images of St Michael triumphing over the devil, and in the early years they were often adorned also with field guns captured from the enemy.

Britain had gone to war alarmed by Prussian militarism. Germany confirmed its aggressive intentions by invading Belgium. Fearing invasion, Britain fought to defend itself and to defeat the tyrant.

The British hoped that a better world would emerge that would prove that it had all been worthwhile. John Maynard Keynes’s baleful view of the economic consequences of the Versailles peace treaty sounded the first questioning note in 1920.

Within about a decade Europe was plunged into economic recession. That helped to change the way that the war was remembered. In 1929 Erich Maria Remarque published All Quiet on the Western Front. The same year Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That appeared. Their tone was far from triumphant. A decade after the war’s end, war poets who wrote enthusiastically about their cause lost popularity to those like Wilfred Owen who had depicted its worst horrors.

When the second world war broke out even veterans who had steadfastly believed that the sacrifice of 1914-18 had been worthwhile began to question it. They had not, after all, fought “the war to end all wars”.

After the second war the “memory” of the first world war changed further. The musical Oh! What a Lovely War and television’s Blackadder Goes Forth reinforced the impression that the war had been pointless and incompetently fought.

In fact the first world war ended with a series of British victories on a scale not matched before or since. They ought to be remembered alongside Waterloo and El Alamein, but few of us could name them. Since the 1960s young people have encountered the first world war through Owen. His magnificent verses should not have taken the place of historical study.

Our misconceptions of the first world war have contributed to a view about war in general. It is widely believed that war is often fought, even by democracies, for the self-serving reasons of politicians or generals. The ordinary soldier is seen merely as a victim. In fact, many Tommies believed strongly in what they were doing. Their high morale and initiative contributed greatly to winning in the final months. It was those who had fought in the first world war — Churchill, Macmillan and Eden — who faced up staunchly to the prospect of another conflict, in contrast to Chamberlain who had not borne arms against the Kaiser.

Bartley wants us to think about whether our soldiers were sacrificed needlessly. He talks about “a myth of redemptive violence”. He complains that we commemorate only those from our side and “not those our people killed”.

For most people, the memory of Auschwitz is enough to convince them that the second world war, at least, was fought in a just cause. In my view redemptive violence is not a myth but a fact evidenced by our history. I am content to bow my head for those who lost their lives as civilians in a country that was our enemy, or as soldiers fighting for it. But I cannot forget that Germany (and Japan) brought about a war in which 50m died.

So yes, the poppy commemorates both the valour of the dead and the nobility of their cause. It is red precisely because it required blood to win those wars. A commitment to peace, symbolised by a white poppy, was not enough to check German ambitions in either world war.

Have some of our wars been more just than others? Perhaps, but our perception of whether a war was just or not can be coloured by how successful it was. For instance, why do we dwell so little nowadays on the Korean war? In Kim Jong-il’s regime there is starvation and brainwashing. People are imprisoned for “crimes” committed by their grandparents and then savagely used in experiments with chemical weapons. That might suggest that we were right to fight communism there. But the war has been pushed to the back of our memories because it ended not in victory but stalemate.

We think better of the Falklands war because we won and with mercilessly little loss of life. Britain retook the islands from an Argentine dictator and restored a benign rule to which they consent. Despite efforts to paint Margaret Thatcher as a warmonger, most people believe that the British counterattack was fully justified.

Had Iraq returned quickly to order once we had toppled its genocidal tyrant, and then embraced democracy, few in this country would now question the justness of the cause. It is our military failure that has filled us with doubt. It was easier for us while Saddam murdered in private. Now that we have wrecked the “stability” imposed by his dictatorship, the bloodletting is out in the open. But there is little blood on the hands of British soldiers. It is mainly Iraqi Muslims who are doing both the killing and the dying.

I wear my poppy not with pride but with humility, and even a sense of shame. I know that I enjoy the freedom for which many others died, most being then about a third of my current age. In my lifetime it was never expected that I would need to show similar courage. I am aware that in Iraq more than 100 young Britons have died in a war for which I voted in parliament. Most of all, I know that I rarely remember those sacrifices between one November and the next.

Bartley has a point about political correctness. It is disagreeable when people are condemned merely for failing to conform to what others do. Snow’s logic is impeccable. If newsreaders are browbeaten into wearing poppies, why not pink ribbons, crosses or headscarves?

Yet I think them both wrong. Christ’s non-violent sacrifice is commemorated at Easter. On November 11 we recall that sometimes the finest achievements of humanity could be saved from violence only by responding with violence. We ask newsreaders to wear poppies as an example to others. We hope to educate another generation of Britons in what they owe to those who died.

The poppy is not a religious symbol, nor is it just a fundraising campaign. It is a token of respect and thanks. If it is also a national emblem then I salute it for that too. There are so few still allowed to us.