It was 1945 and the poisonous heart of fascism was unravelling. My grandfather was a member of the regiment tasked with liberating the despairing prisoners at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. As the exhausted men approached the iron gates, guarding the prison from the antidote of tolerance, piles of rotting bodies greeted them. The air was stifled by typhus and starvation. Skeletal figures were begging the men for non-existent food, their faces a symbol of the barbarity they had suffered. The liberators would agonise over these horrifying images until their deaths; the experience forcing many of them to question the entire premise of human nature.
It is for this personal reason that I wear the red poppy with distinct pride year on year. For many other descendants of war veterans, the wearing of a poppy reminds us of the magnitude of the sacrifices our grandparents endured. Nevertheless, every November, there is a movement towards the wearing of a white poppy; a so-called symbol of peace and pacifism. It is a movement which I, and many others with military connections, find deeply bewildering and disrespectful.
First, proponents of the white poppy fail to recognise the profound symbolism of the red poppy. From the outset, the poppy has been a representation of sacrifice. It acts as a reminder to us all that whole generations of men and women have had to lay down their lives; whether for reasons which are right or wrong is debatable. Never has it been a method to glorify conflict or legitimise rampant patriotism.
Indeed, the poppy is a very British symbol; we remember in a sombre, reflective manner without pageants or pomp. This contrasts with the symbolism of the white poppy. For many, it reflects political opportunism at its very worst and the hijacking of a reflective period to prove your own apparent moral superiority. We, the evil masses who wear a red poppy, are the advocates of destruction and murder in comparison to the guilt-free few adorned with a white poppy.
Second, the Peace Pledge Union (the organisation behind the white poppy) have clearly stated that the white poppy is a representation of “no war”; in other words, total pacifism. This eradicates any notion of a distinction between a just war and an illegal war. Fighting aggressive fascism on our shores is apparently similar to deposing a legitimate democratic government in some far-flung corner of the globe. Yet a key indicator of maturity is understanding that war is, in some unfortunate cases, a necessity. Ignoring the plight of the oppressed by refusing to prevent genocide does not make us the better nation. Indeed, we need only point to Rwanda or Syria to prove that non-intervention can create catastrophic results for humanity.
If we had followed the philosophy of the pacifists in the past, the entirety of Europe would have been under the brutal fist of Nazism. There is nothing moralistic about failing to stand up for democracy and liberty even if the armed forces are the only method in which we can protect those values.
Therefore, I will continue to wear my red poppy this November and all the Novembers to come. For if the principle of pacifism had prevailed 70 years ago, those piles of bodies outside the gates of Bergen-Belsen would have been a lot larger.