This is an essay I wrote last year while I was in London.
I spent this past Sunday morning standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of men and women of the armed forces, veterans, family members, and citizens to honor the service and sacrifice of those who had answered the call to arms in wars both past and present. These weren’t my armed forces, or my fellow citizens, though. I was standing in central London, where the British gather yearly on the Sunday nearest Armistice Day (Veterans Day in the US). I served alongside the British in Iraq, and this was an opportunity for me to honor their service as fellow warriors.
As the clock reached the eleventh hour, a cannon fired, accompanied by the first chime of the bell, shaking our bodies and minds into silent obedience, urging our hearts to remember with each successive toll those who will not come home. On cue, the slight drizzle turns into a steady rain. Under a dark London sky, the Royal family and nation’s leaders gather together for a few short moments to recognize and pay tribute to the men and women who have fought and died for the Union Jack. The Queen leads the ceremony by laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, a memorial originally meant to pay tribute to the British who died in the tragically labeled ‘War to end all Wars.’ Then, members of the Royal family lay wreaths, followed by the Prime Minister and other state officials. When all the wreaths have been laid, veterans march to the cheer of their countrymen, render a smart salute upon passing the Cenotaph, and exit the parade ground, having captured for another moment the spirit of military service, but no closer to solving its meaning. The ceremony is both somber and appreciative, beginning with reflection and tears, and ending with catharsis, pride, and applause.
I’m not British, but this ceremony struck me more than any I have participated in back home. I’ve marched in the New York Veterans Day parade, whose main spectators are the families of those marching, November tourists, and people trying to cross the street. Memorial Day is commemorated nationally with mattress sales. Here though, for one moment, people throughout the UK (including all the nation’s leaders) stop to honor those who have fought for them.
But it’s not just Remembrance Sunday that people “do something.” From late October to mid-November, the Royal British Legion sells paper poppies to be worn on the lapels of men and women to show their support. This is the most well-known charity event in the UK, and you would be hard-pressed to find any public figure caught without wearing the small red flower (Harry Potter and company sported them for the release of Deathly Hallows). To me, this is more than a gesture. It is a sign that they actually care. It is a way for a person to not only demonstrate that they have donated money towards veterans, but to tell the world that their veterans matter.
It would be easy to dismiss the poppy as an empty symbol, like we often do with our yellow ribbons, which were slapped to the back of our cars at the turn of the millennium, and have since faded to white. Maybe some people who wear the poppy do it because it is the “right thing to do” but don’t actually care about veterans. Undoubtedly, this will be the case for some. To declare the entire gesture as empty demonstrates a low faith in humanity, though. I’d like to live in a world where people’s expressions can be genuine, so I take the view that what they wear is what they mean. And to be frank, when I see someone wearing a poppy it makes me feel like my service mattered – especially in a country heavily conflicted over its role in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Wearing the poppy is an acknowledgement that taking care of veterans is not a political statement, but a moral responsibility.
Remembrance Sunday is the Super Bowl of veterans’ commemorations. Veterans Day and Memorial day, rolled into one, where heads of state are duty-bound to participate and the country comes together to remember and show its appreciation. As a nation that has asked so much of so few, don’t we owe our veterans the same?