Letters: Poppies don’t glorify war – they evoke its horror

These letters were published in the 10th November edition of The Independent

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I have stopped wearing poppies myself now that they’ve become a routine rather than an expression of real feeling. But I disagree with Robert Fisk (8 November) in his indiscriminate lashing out at the symbolism.

I remember my boyhood in the 1930s, when the presence of the Great War was still palpable, and remember too the depth of feeling that accompanied Armistice Day and the wearing of the poppies. It wasn’t militaristic or born of hate: it was a profound, overwhelming feeling of the enormity of what had happened and an almost inexpressible sense of grief, in which those who had been personally involved (including my very unwarlike father) shared.

I deplore Fisk’s characterisation of John McCrae as a warmonger. He was a frontline doctor, who would have seen more than enough of the dreadful results of what was going on. Yes, he did say in his poem “take up our quarrel with the foe”.  He, like most others must have seen the foe as an evil that must be stopped.

Despite plenty of revisionist speculation, it did then and does now seem pretty clear that Germany intended the conquest and domination of France and was prepared to use massive force and brutal tactics to achieve it. Yes, there’s an easy target in the failures of pre-war diplomacy, but what would Robert Fisk have done when the event actually occurred: rolled over and purred?

His essay, for once, seems more spleen than thought.

John Tippler

Spalding, Lincolnshire

 

How mistaken Robert Fisk – usually so reliable and worth reading on Middle Eastern affairs – is in his article “Poppycock”. While fully entitled to his own opinion as to why the wearing of poppies makes him see red, the way he tries to justify this opinion is at fault.

McCrae is not  demanding further human sacrifice in his poem; he is mourning the death of  a close friend and hoping that his death will not have been in vain, which is something very different.

Sassoon may have called the Menin Gate that “sepulchre of crime”, but in “Aftermath” in 1919 he also urged us to “Look up and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget”.

The wearing of the poppy is not a glorification of war, nor is it in any way a “mourning of the end of the British empire”; it is an aide-memoire to remind us of the horrors of war, to honour those who have died, and to be grateful that, among other things, Robert Fisk and I have the freedom to put our feelings into public print.

David Du Croz

Marlborough, Wiltshire

I wear a poppy every year at this time; but not in jingoistic glorification, nor in mourning for lost empire. I recently received a cardboard poppy, with the invitation to write a thought on it. My words were: “Remember all who went – some willingly, some because their governments told them to – and never returned. Remember those who came back, changed forever. Remember all from all nations who fell; victims of war’s monstrous appetite.” I use this time to reflect upon all people, military and civilian, who die, or suffer, or grieve because of conflicts everywhere.

As well as obtaining a new poppy each year, I also wear one that I have had since 1980, shortly before my father died. He served in Flanders, a mere boy in 1918, never speaking of his experience with much nostalgia. I wear it to remember him, one individual among countless millions.

I hope that Mr Fisk will not think too unkindly of me for wearing poppies, which have never reminded me of “our duty to kill more human beings”.

Eryl Williams

Cromer, Norfolk

 

Surely Robert Fisk’s wrath is misdirected. Poppy Day is only a flag day, if a rather special one, raising money for a good cause – the British Legion. What is offensive, and gets more offensive every year, as the phenomenon gets more and more conspicuous, is the phalanx of oafs, lickspittles and careerists at the BBC, in Parliament, and in Whitehall, who march forward two weeks before Remembrance Sunday sporting poppies in the buttonholes of their uniform suits. Nobody can believe in their sincerity; they insult every private citizen.

Hugh Brogan

Colchester

 

Probation service under threat

As former probation officers we are writing to express our dismay at the dismemberment of the service proposed in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which will receive its second reading in the Commons on Monday 11 November.

Probation in England and Wales has recently celebrated a centenary of selfless and effective service to the community. To remove up to 250,000 of its cases and auction them off to an untried consortium of commercial interests and voluntary bodies is in our view to take a reckless gamble with public safety and to put at risk the prospects for personal change and reform which lie at the heart of what probation is and does.

Professor Robert Canton

De Montfort University, Leicester

Dr Philip Priestley

Wells

Professor Peter Raynor

Swansea University

Professor Paul Senior

Sheffield Hallam University

Professor David Smith

Lancaster

Professor Maurice Vanstone

Swansea

Professor Anne Worrall

Keele University

Some ‘school leaders’ are not up to the job

Ofsted boss Michael Wilshaw misses two vital points in encouraging school heads to get a better disciplinary grip on their teaching staff (report, 8 November).

Primarily, that the most successful schools, from Eton and Westminster to those liberal Scandinavian state hothouses we keep hearing about – and notwithstanding the hierarchical structures that are of course essential in any place of education – tend to conduct their business in a collegiate rather than quasi-military fashion, with their teachers enjoying levels of professional autonomy and involvement in decision-making processes that are in keeping with their expertise, qualifications, experience and social standing.

Second, that placing enhanced institutional power in the hands of “school leaders” is all fine and dandy in a system where the vast majority of those managers are at least very good at what they do, rather than the mixture of over-promoted, second-rate chancers and borderline charlatans currently running at least a sizeable minority of British schools.

Terry Wood

London N1

No justice for Magnitsky

I first asked David Cameron to raise the Sergei Magnitsky case with Vladimir Putin in the Commons in 2010 (Andy McSmith diary, 6 November). This was followed by an appeal to William Hague in 2011 to adopt a UK Justice for Magnitsky Act banning his killers from entering the UK or having assets here.

Numerous appeals by MPs of all parties have followed and it was good to read that Dominic Raab continues the campaign. But the plain fact is that this UK Government is not going to follow the example of the US Congress and President Obama and tell President Putin that his functionaries involved in the atrocious death in agony of Sergei Magnitsky are not welcome in the UK.

Top Tories don’t talk about freedom any more if money is to be made.

Dr Denis MacShane

London SW1

Birds may sing – but we must never forget

There is a poetic and beautiful idea that birds don’t sing at Auschwitz/Birkenau. It ought to be true but, having just returned from there, I have to report that this story is myth. The ground ought to transmit the memory of such incalculable suffering through the vibration of its atoms, but it doesn’t.

And it’s because the story is myth that we need to keep going there to witness and report. The truly wonderful Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman, who spoke at many hundreds of Anti Nazi League meetings, is gone so it’s down to (the very inadequate) us to bear  that witness.

No historical revisionist will tell me this is manufactured history.

We must bear witness.

John Lockwood

Leamington Spa

Vanity plates spell danger

That was a thought-provoking piece by Mary Dejevsky (8 November) about number plates. Not only is useful geographical information now hard to find, but some plates distort or upend letter shapes and spacings so as to approximate more closely to their owners’ names or favourite words. Have there been any prosecutions of people who put personal vanity above making the identity of potentially lethal machines clearly evident?

Michael McCarthy

London W13

What kind of voter am I?

In “Big data” (8 November), I could not identify the segment of the electorate that would apply to me. This is the segment for voters who despise politicians who try to manipulate others; voters who can see through trite, vacuous soundbites; and voters who want politicians with principles that are not modified by every focus-group finding.

Phil Wood

Greater Manchester

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