How Clausewitz helped me think about poppies

There has been an awful lot written and said about the wearing of poppies. There has been a growing pressure in the popular media that poppies must be worn from mid October onwards.

I’ve seen this professionally, with fellow PR advisers understanding that our clients, even if foreign, must be seen wearing a poppy at this time of year, or they are likely to attract quite intense, personalised criticism.

What I’ve found particularly frustrating is that over the past few years the issue seems to have intensified into a binary choice. One is either a patriotic supporter of the U.K. Armed forces, or you’re a traitor. The voice of entitled moral indignation makes me grit my teeth. The certainty that they are right and anyone that disagrees is simply beyond the pale. Take the PM in the house today moaning about FIFA. I hate being told what to do, even if it’s something I might well do anyway.

I’m a big supporter of the British Armed forces, not least because I’ve compared them with other Sovereign operators such as Russia, France and the US. (Some people reading this might be aware of my fascination of military history, which lead to post graduate study of War Studies. I had a particular focus on the integration and interaction of intelligence and military capabilities in low intensity war zones, specifically Ulster & Chechnya). In general HM Forces intelligence, professionalism and commitment to operating within legal and moral guidelines does our country great credit, and has done for many years. I’m not saying I’m desperately keen for Aidan to become an infantryman, but in general I think the institution is a positive one.

Of course WW2, Bosnia the Falklands and Sierra Leone and other conflicts were entirely “just wars”. Of course WW1 was a national tragedy, if not one as morally simple as WW2. These are the conflicts we are meant to remember with poppies and pride. These are the conflicts my family fought in, and were effected by.

Ready for the “however”? The British Army, Royal Navy and RAF have not always been used for pure, certain, moral purposes. Geopolitical decision making in briefing rooms in London can lead to exceptionally nasty reality on the ground. Whether it was the colonial operations of the early to mid 20th century to secret wars in the Middle East for nasty allies; from decades of questionable operations in Ireland by a small minority of the U.K. servicemen actually engaged, to Iraq; UK armed forces are both prone to occasional moral failure and are the tip of the spear, executors of government policy that may in hindsight have been regretted.

This leads me to my final points. The poppy is designed to commemorate all UK combat casualties since 1914. There are therefore two lines thrown around a lot that I just don’t buy.

1- “they fought and died so you’re free to moan”

P2- “poppies are not a political symbol”

Both to me feel incorrect if you’re referring to a combat casualties in conflicts that are Clausewitzian in that soldiers are in harm’s way due purely to British geopolitical interest, particularly if we are referring to professional soldiers and not national servicemen. Often these men are not “defending” us in any meaningful way. They are hard, methodical professionals executing government policy. Saying the poppy is apolitical feels somewhat naive. Forget arguments about how the Irish / Germans / Kenyans / insert your choice here, feel. These men often died due to simple Clausewitzian logic. If war is the continuation of policy by other means, the wearing of a poppy can be seen as a political act.

So my conclusion? Wear a poppy if you want. Be proud of our outstanding armed forces. Give a lot of money to the Legion and Crisis because a horrible % of homeless are ex forces and need help. We should ask why we have to give to a charity, as surely the government should be taking better care of men it has held too close to the fire? At the same time there are plenty of reasons why one might not want to publicly celebrate the memory of wars which were far from self defence or glorious. Those people should not be made to feel as traitors.

As it happens I’ve given regularly to the appeal this year, as I do every year and I wish all UK servicemen well. I don’t necessarily wear a poppy as I lose them all the time. I don’t feel I have to have to wear one on every day up to 11 November. With the slashed budget and capacity stretched to breaking point and some kit not fit for purpose, HM Forces need a lot of luck.

So, Dail Mail Dacre and team, who’s the real traitor, someone who doesn’t buy a poppy, or a government that won’t properly equip troops but send them into combat of questionable legality against enemies who don’t follow Geneva or Hague conventions, and then not support them when they come home and return to civilian life?

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