In the grey of November when the clouds above hang low and move through the sky with the grim pace of a funeral dirge, the high streets of Britain blossom red with paper poppies. As long as I have lived I have known we are not a nation of people who easily wear our hearts on our sleeves because we prefer to hide our sorrow behind closed doors. But in the 21st century, when it comes to our war dead we put aside our reserve, our critical thinking and like soldiers in their millions volunteering for the First Great War, we follow the crowd no matter where it take us.

Our news presenters, our sports teams, our celebrities and our co-workers all now brandish poppies on their lapels like patriotic bloodstains. Now a person can't get away without wearing a poppy unless they are willing to take scowls or outright condemnation from friends and strangers alike for a perceived failure to show respect to the dead. It is as if those who don't wear the poppy are seen as no better than people who trade state secrets to our rivals.

For me, I can no longer wear a poppy because it's meaning of respect for the fallen and the motto "never again" on the First World War memorial has been profaned by our wars to maintain our empire after the fall of Hitler, and our modern conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. I feel now that wearing the poppy gives a blank cheque to our politicians to justify their folly in wars of questionable merit, as well as the needless deaths their sanguine votes for boots on the ground costs both our soldiers and innocent civilians in foreign countries.

Poppies
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Wearing the poppy today lets our politicians off the hook for their symbiotic relationship to the arms industry and their criminal disregard for the refugee crisis. We have lost our right to collectively mourn our war dead if we are unwilling to at least investigate the notion that our military industrial complex might not have our country's best interests at heart when they sell bombs to tyrants. It is why the insistence of certain media outlets to name and shame those who don't wear the poppy is not only reprehensible, but jingoistic, and will ultimately help lead us into conflicts that will threaten the lives of thousands of our young like the First Great War did.

Wearing the poppy gives a blank cheque to our politicians to justify their folly in wars of questionable merit

I did not always feel this way about the poppy, but then again I was born five year after the guns grew still on the Western Front in 1918.

I can remember the 10th anniversary of armistice because the people's grief was as jagged as shattered glass since everyone in this country had been touched by war.

On that long ago Sunday I don't remember whether the people wore poppies or not because the grief from that war was as fresh and as raw as lost love. Back then the need for symbols to remember the dead in war wasn't seen as it is now – as a means to prod the collective memory of our citizens towards patriotism without reflection on whether some wars are less just than others.

We understand so little now about the hardship and heartache that my parents' generation or my generation endured from either the First or Second World War because we are more intent on honouring the clichés of war rather than looking to end the suffering it unleashes.

We are more intent on honouring the clichés of war rather than looking to end the suffering it unleashes

I am old, so I can't help but look back on the grief from that time long ago when my family and my community went to the Cenotaph to remember our dead. But I also remember with anger how those Tommies who fought in the trenches but came home damaged beyond repair and were left to die in abject poverty during the 1930s. Even though I was haunted by the shameful treatment I saw doled out to the soldiers of the First Great War, I didn't shirk from taking the King's shilling for the Second. My war was good because I came back in one piece, but the carnage I saw and helped caused changed me, it made me understand that between nations, between regions and between people, there is more that unites us than divides us.

It is time that we stop remembering the dead if that makes us forget the suffering of the living. So as Remembrance Sunday rolls on like it has done every year since the War To End All Wars ended almost 100 years ago, I will recall the mates I lost during the last just war – our battle against fascism. But I will also remember to do my duty to the living by fighting for the rights of the vulnerable and speaking up for those caught in the great sorrow of this modern refugee crisis.


Harry Leslie Smith is a 93-year-old Second World War veteran, activist and writer. His first book, Harry's Last Stand, was published in June 2014 and his second, Love Among the Ruins, is out now. Check out www.harryslaststand.com and follow him on Twitter at @Harryslaststand