The dead we honour won our freedom to disagree

Independent on Sunday, 13 November 2011

I suppose I should by now be familiar with the phenomenon of coercive compassion. It appeared quite suddenly in 1997, when anyone who didn’t express extravagant distress over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was regarded as shockingly heartless. So there is a historical parallel for the ugly hysteria that’s been whipped up about
Remembrance Day this year, even to the point of involving Prince William in an unseemly row about last night’s football match between England and Spain.

First, some background. The red poppy has been a symbol of remembrance since shortly after the First World War, when an American teacher, Moina Belle Michael, came up with the idea of adopting it as an emblem of the war dead. It was quickly taken up by British and French ex-servicemen and has been a means of honouring the fallen, and raising money for veterans and their families, ever since. Today, with British troops fighting in Afghanistan and in the recently ended Nato campaign in Libya, its potency as a symbol has been renewed. This year, the pressure to wear one has been greater
than ever.

The Duke of Cambridge, who is president of the FA, was said to be “livid” about Fifa’s decision to stop members of the England team wearing poppies during last night’s friendly, while David Cameron denounced it as “absurd”. Fifa quickly caved in, allowing England players to wear poppies on black armbands. Even the News Corp boss, James
Murdoch, took care to sport a poppy in his buttonhole when he faced MPs on Thursday for a second grilling about phone hacking.

I don’t doubt many individuals wear the red poppy with pride. What I don’t understand is why they want everyone else to wear one, regardless of how they feel towards war and its horrors. I’m not a pacifist but traditional Remembrance Day ceremonies make me uncomfortable, turning the dead into two-dimensional “heroes” when I know that many died in agony, confusion and despair. Increasingly, another tradition – the wearing of
white poppies – has been revived, the number of white-poppy wreath-laying ceremonies up from three last year to more than 40 in 2011. According to Bruce Scates, professor of history at Monash University in Australia, the white poppy became “an alternative way of remembering” in the 1920s. It was also a symbol of civilians who died in the First World War, marking it out from the largely military nature of official ceremonies.

This year, coercion of reluctant red-poppy wearers has been joined by an outbreak of sheer nastiness towards the few who wear white ones. On Friday, a Daily Telegraph blogger described them as “sanctimonious prats” and mocked their eccentric belief that
“there are better ways of solving conflicts than killing strangers”. Whether or not expressing such graceless opinions is an appropriate way to mark Armistice Day, it’s a vivid example of the intolerance that threatens to disfigure our remembrance of young men and women who perished in almost a century of wars.

If they died in the name of freedom, that has to include the freedom to think about war, suffering and sacrifice in different ways from the majority. It’s perfectly possible to honour the dead – essential, I’d say – without bullying or abusing the living. Rancorous attitudes to dissent are not the most convincing evidence I’ve seen of decency and

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