I found myself in an interesting debate yesterday with a friend regarding poppies and Remembrance Day. She rather objected to being forced to observe the rituals of a minute’s silence and the current rise of “poppy fascism” – the trashing of public figures who didn’t wear poppies at this time of year. Her perfectly valid point was that honouring “The Glorious Dead” was hypocritical and dishonest, given that there was nothing glorious about war at all and that so many of the wars Britain (let’s face it, most countries) have fought have been morally wrong. We both agreed that not everyone would observing the minute’s silence would actually be thinking about war dead, and people should be allowed to wear whatever they like.
I also had to accept her points about war. The Great War may have been historically inevitable but it was also futile and generally in pursuit of imperial gain. The Iraq war was always, always wrong. Even where the wars have been morally right, as in Afghanistan (shame on the rest of the world for not joining in the attempt to ensure peace there) our armed forces have arguably achieved little so far. As a country, we don’t seem to pick our fights very well.
But that’s rather missing the point of Remembrance Day. In remembering those who died, we shouldn’t be grading the worth of each fallen individual according to the moral value of the conflicts they took part in. The armed forces – particularly in the United Kingdom which has no conscription and we rely on professional soldiers – do our dirty work for us. They act on behalf of an elected government, a government which we as a society elect to take war and peace decisions on our behalf.
Ah, I hear you say, but the Iraq war was ‘not in my name’. Well I opposed the Iraq war too, but if you try to walk away from your responsibilities to the armed forces, I’d suggest you’re treading a dangerous path. The last thing we want are politicised armed forces; experience across the world suggests that doesn't usually lead to good outcomes.
In Iraq, the armed forces loyally did as they were asked, as we would expect them to do in all situations except when they’re asked to flout the Geneva Convention and commit a war crime. If we don’t approve of the Iraq war, say, that’s a matter between us and our government, it’s not for the military to contradict a democratically arrived-at policy. (And it’s worth noting that Blair’s government was comfortably re-elected in 2005; we care more about our money in our pockets than the rights and wrongs of the wars in which our troops engage.)
In that sense, those soldiers who die, and the people they kill, are simply victims of our petty squabbles between governments and ourselves. It’s cowardly not to acknowledge our own responsibility for the decisions our governments take. And if you have a minute to spare in the next few days, it’s maybe worth considering that instead of wondering what you’re going to have for tea tonight.