Tomorrow, and on the Eleventh of November, I shall be wearing two poppies:
the red poppy, dating from the early 1920s, symbol of remembrance of and respect for those who died in the First World War and in every conflict since;
and the less well known white poppy, dating from the early 1930s (when it became clear to women who had lost their menfolk in the Great War that Europe was heading into war again, with the prospect of losing their men all over again), symbol of a commitment to find non-violent alternatives to conflict resolution.
These two things go hand-in-hand. While it is right to stand in silence at the loss of life, it is also right to keep quietly insisting that we work towards a global community where we do not keep sacrificing our sons and daughters in order to win our arguments.
The red poppy represents an important principle of remembrance: the act of remembrance has a particular work to achieve, and once that mission is complete, like serving forces personnel, it should be dismissed from duty with thanksgiving.
That is, the red poppy remembers all those who fell in every war since 1914-18. It draws a line: we do not include the countless fallen of the wars we have waged before that war. This is not to say that we have no knowledge of those wars, to learn from (or not). It is not to say that the loss of those lives is inconsequential.
Our forces have just withdrawn from Afghanistan, as they withdrew from Iraq before that. Their role needed a clear and limited objective, and an exit plan. It does not mean that they might not have to go back – is not a war to end all wars – but recognises that we can’t go on and on indefinitely like this.
The work of remembrance is not to keep alive the embers of hatred, so they can be fanned into flame at a moment’s notice. (This is why it is so disturbing to see the red poppy co-opted by extreme nationalists.) It is to work towards reconciliation: opposing enemies were united in death, and veterans are united in respect. Once reconciliation has been achieved, or can be better pursued in other expressions of friendship, active remembrance needs to be discharged. We no longer actively remember a long list of wars.
It is right that we still formally remember the First World War. Remembrance has not yet completed its work. But it is also right that, at some point beyond the centenary commemorations – and, I would suggest, before the 200 anniversary – we should let go. And, in time, each war since.
‘Never forget’ has not held us back from going to war, as was once hoped, and so quickly shown wrong. ‘Forgive, and no longer bring to mind’ is God’s response to our failure to love one another.
As, for now, we look back, let us commit ourselves to peace.
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