888,246 is the number ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London in a new Remembrance Day art exhibition; Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red contains a flower for every British soldier who lost their life in WW1. And yet this striking tribute to the fallen has been lambasted by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian as ‘meaningless,’, ‘fake,’ and ‘UKIP style’ memorial.
It seems the meaning of the memorial has sailed merrily over Mr Jones’ head. A century may seem like an awfully long time to us, but is only just beyond living memory, and among the 20 000 British who died on the first day of the Somme were the grandfathers and even fathers of people who are still alive today. However, Jones assumes that the memorial stands only for the dead of WW1, failing to surmise that the display memorialises all our nation’s military dead since that date; a particularly impressive oversight since this is the stated purpose of the Poppy Appeal itself. Jones also suggests that the memorial is ‘inward looking’ for only memorialising the death of British citizens, likewise failing to notice that the poppy is an international symbol and thus also represents the fallen remembered by nations across the globe every Remembrance or Poppy Day.
Jones also complains of the memorial’s ‘fake nobility’, as though allowing fallen soldiers some dignity is tantamount to glorifying acts of war. Every year, soldiers give their lives to protect us. We may actively disagree with the motives behind wars such as Iraq or Afghanistan, but this belies the fact that the motives behind all wars, including WW1, are always dubious. Whether or not a war is justified does not negate the insurmountable sacrifice made by those who are prepared to lay down their lives regardless, and it is thus ignorant and insensitive to dismiss this sacrifice, even if one believes strongly in pacifism.
The vastly popular London display has caused a huge influx of visitors to the Tower itself, and is even the source of major Tube delays in the area. Yet heaven forbid that the UK should be allowed to show any semblance of national pride: Mr Jones randomly equates national unity through mourning as an example of ‘UKIP style’ sentiments. His reference to the controversial right-wing party is a ridiculous and offensive non-sequitur; while Jones no doubt means to suggest that any appearance of national consciousness will somehow send Britain spiralling down a dark path towards fascism, this conclusion is entirely impossible to sustain.
Jones is furthermore remarkably unobservant to suggest that the memorial does not represent the horrors of war. Firstly, the poppy symbolises death itself, with the entire display highly reminiscent of a river of blood, as its title unsubtly indicates. Overall, the vulnerability of the poppies reflects the vulnerability of soldiers, with their almost identical multitude showing the thoughtless brutality with which lives are swept away in war.
While using a flower as a symbol for remembering the war dead may be euphemistic, this is necessary in order to memorialise the fallen in a way which remains solemn yet is not so grotesque as to be inaccessible. The poppy thus continues to be a poignant and vital symbol of respect, which pays tribute to those who have died without glorifying their actions or war itself; the memorial perfectly captures both the importance and tragedy of this sacrifice. The fact that war is always difficult to justify only makes it all the more vital that we continue to remember those who lose their lives in the name of defending our country.