When I was in school, there was a protest against the war in Afghanistan. I didn’t go.
It was during a break, as maths crept closer, that a murmur spread throughout the kids that we were all going to go out behind the gym and protest the war, surrepticiously timed such that class must be skipped.
I’m sure some of them cared. But a lot of them didn’t. They just wanted to not go to class. I know this because they told me. I decided that if I was going to protest a war, I wasn’t going to do it beside people who wanted to exploit the occasion of our country becoming complicit in murder of its own people and others for no good reason to skip maths.
In a class of maybe thirty, there were no more than four of us who didn’t go to the protest.
I live in Canada now, but this was in my first country: the United Kingdom. Going back further, come November, all the other kids started wearing poppies. I was a conscientious young child, I cared about other people’s suffering, I heard it was about World War 1, so I got one too. It felt like I was doing the right thing.
At some point, it no longer felt like I was doing the right thing, at least for me. It was probably whenever I realized that what’s normal isn’t necessarily what’s right. It was probably also after I realized that World War 2 was not the exception to the idea that WW1 was “the war to end all wars.” It was certainly by 2001.
I learned about other wars. About how WW1 led to WW2, and about how WW2 led to the Cold War and it’s countless proxy wars, And Korea. And Vietnam. And true, my country wasn’t necessarily involved with them all, but they still happened. After the trench warfare, poison gas, and completely wasteful slaughter of WW1, war kept happening. Maybe here or there from the perspective of the allied forces or “the West” or “our side” you could justify this one or that.
And then it finally happened. A war broke out and I was old enough to follow it. My country leapt into Afghanistan with the United States. Yeah, 9/11 was not a good thing, but the answer to terrorism is not additional killing. I was 13 and could figure that out.
Afghanistan turned out to be a drag, but it just wasn’t enough for the warmongers. On claims that at the time were dubious at best, and later were found to be completely fictitious, and against the wishes of the United Nations, we later went ahead and unseated Saddam Hussein. By no means was he a saint, but the collatoral damage we so deftly provided makes us hardly better.
I don’t want to get bogged down in recycling the “Afghanistan and Iraq sucked you guys” arguments everyone’s heard a million times before. This is about poppies. The point here is, at 13 and 15, I concluded that these wars were unjust. And those who started and supported them wore poppies.
As a child I was taught empathy. To think about how I would feel should somebody do a certain action to me. When I was a Christian, it was what Jesus taught. When I was at university, it was what Kant taught. It’s not a perfect principle, but it’s as good a rule of thumb as anything else.
How would I feel if someone stronger than me were to take something of mine?
How would I feel if a country stronger than mine were to take mine?
I thought about how I would feel if—yes, I were living under an awful regime—a bunch of foreigners started bombing my city to free me. Especially if, you know, those foreigners had propped up the awful regime I was living under up until the point that war was more convenient for them. And then enforced a democracy with no regard to the culture or history under which I was living.
Democracy acknowledges that in matters of governance, physical strength should not determine power. In the countries I’ve lived in, citizenship and the age of 18 entitles you to the exact same power as anyone else. I’m grateful for this.
We don’t want a system whereby the person with the biggest army gets to rule. We tried that, but sooner or later, somebody with a bigger army comes along, and a lot of people die. Particularly, lots of who we used to call peons, peasants, serfs, commoners. On the whole, in the West, we’ve decided (and not without a small degree of dragging those previously in power kicking and screaming with us, and certainly not without lingering and new problems) that everybody gets the same basic say in government, at least on paper.
This goes out the window on the world stage, despite the United Nations and despite the primate chest beating about the importance of every country being a democracy. You’d think that any country so commited to democracy that it decides to impose it upon others would first get the democratic approval from other equal players to do so. But no. The people with the biggest army decide what happens. We could stomach giving people a direct say in their representation in government on the nation state level. We could not stomach having that be the case internationally.
The U.S. has never pretended to be an equal player. It’s a schoolyard bully that punches you in the face, steals your lunch money, spits on the teachers for good measure. He’s stronger than anyone else, so nobody can do anything. We’re just like, “well the friend of the guy he’s beating up scratched him earlier so it’s okay, r-r-right guys?”
But forget the U.S. for now. I’m talking about poppies.
My point here is, every November, every politician in both of my countries, every media person, and almost every public figure who graces the TV screens, wears a poppy.
Including all those fucks who decided that even though soldiers died for our democracy and our freedom, that democracy doesn’t count on the world stage. All those fucks who decided that we should go to war and kill more people without justification. All those fucks who decided that in the name of security, we all get spied on by our own and foreign governments, we have our property confiscated at airports, and we pretend that the “post-9/11 world” is a real thing rather than a sick measurement of Osama Bin Laden’s success that we contintually tick higher and higher and higher.
Not all politicians, public figures, and media, supported the wars. But so many did. And these fucks wear their poppies proud and smiling like they never did a thing wrong.
I don’t think ill of your everyday person wearing a poppy. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re not slavering warhawks hankering for the next big one. They want to remember and publically acknowledge that people fought and died for the freedom they enjoy, and for the freedom of others. Perhaps they’re veterans themselves remembering their fallen friends. They may also want to remember the civilian slaughter that accompanies war. Whatever it is and whatever the colour: great. And for the record, though I don’t wear a poppy, I do remember myself, and not just on November 11.
But I refused to stand beside the disingenous protestors, and I refuse to be in the company of those who would take us to more war and sign away what was fought for, desperate for the veneer of nobility like people won’t notice their sins.
When or if the War on Terror ends, and civil liberties are respected once more, I’ll wear the poppy. And if it’s a “when” rather than an “if,” the next time we march to war or strip away rights, it’s coming right back off.
Yes, our veterans fought and died for our rights. Disrepect to the veterans is not an individual turning down a poppy. It’s the representation of a society signing away those hard-won rights while wearing one.