Originally posted in November 2009, updated slightly since.
Ever since I was at school and we were all made to buy poppies, it was something I’d done almost without fail every year. However more recently, I became more politically-aware, more sceptical, and was able to identify and articulate those nagging feelings I’d always had about what it meant for me to participate.
The Poppy Rationale
Ever year the nation is urged to buy poppies for two reasons – symbolically they represent a remembrance of the sacrifice of individual soldiers in World War One; and the money raised goes to the British Legion, a charity that helps serving and ex-Service UK personnel and their families, providing support and advocacy for these groups.
In 2008 we helped more than 100,000 people in need with our Poppy Support services. For every pound raised 80p goes towards achieving our objectives and of that 6.6p goes towards our support costs. More than 70% of the workers at the Poppy Factory are disabled or suffer from chronic illness. The Factory was designed to offer jobs to such people and its remit remains the same today.
Commendable enough – but with this money they also bought huge hectoring billboards on London’s streets in 2009:
There’s subtle difference between fundraising and advocacy/lobbying communications, though they often overlap. Oxfam’s huge posters on the Tube for instance, obviously seek donations but also raise awareness of global development issues. But going by the ubiquity of the poppy and it’s vendors, it appears to be a largely case of preaching to the already-converted. Which raises the question of what purpose these poppy policing billboards serve?
It does seem that in general the enforcement of poppy-wearing has slipped into dogma, and the fear of ostracism outweighs meaningful remembrance which allows people to choose to participate. Surely it’s much more powerful to enable people to learn and remember in their own way – rather than hollowing out any significance by making it near compulsory?
The complete suppression of any scepticism when dealing publicly with our relationship to armed forces and war, is surprising. To quote academic William E. Connelly, a good relationship between a state and it’s citizens is ‘patriotism chastened by scepticism’.
I can’t help feeling that a time should come for a shift in focus, examining current and future events, and preventing our ongoing wars (of dubious legality and morality) from re-occurring. I’m suggesting we actually learn from the past, rather than just looking back shiny-eyed once a year.
It is said that the poppy is a ‘symbol of Remembrance’ and ‘[commemorates] those who are no longer with us’, who valiantly ‘fought for our freedoms’. What this language disguises is that despite using generalised language, the beneficiaries of both financial and of ‘remembrance’ are invariably a few.
My grandfather was a Commonwealth pilot and with many others from ‘the colonies’ trained to fly for Britain in this ‘fight for freedom’ in WWII, along with hundreds of thousands of other ‘imperial’ soldiers. In fact, some estimate that as much as 20% of ‘British’ force deaths were not actually British. Where are the appeals and remembrance for these former soldiers? This question is particularly pertinent in lesser-developed countries that were/are less able to provide support domestically (in part because their wealth was historically siphoned-off by the imperial centre, Britain itself).
Moreover, it appears that the British Legion find other minority groups’ attempts at remembrance – specifically those wishing to remember the contribution and suffering of the tens of thousands of LGBT servicepeople and victims of the ‘Holocaust’ – as ‘insulting, offensive and distasteful’.
The Government’s role
With regards to where the money raised goes – if support services are needed for veterans, these should be provided by the government and taken into account when making the decision to go to war. Logically if everyone in this country has seemingly benefitted from soldiers’ actions, surely it’s only fair that we evenly share out the subsequent costs through taxes, rather than relying on the voluntary contributions of a compassionate few to pick up the government’s slack?
The argument could be made that donating to such a charity is essentially subsidising the cost of warfare for the government. This is why many feel it smacks of hypocrisy when war-time heads-of-state participate in such ceremonies. And more so when it’s all a bit staged for the cameras.
Why is this different from any other charitable cause dealing with particular diseases, environmental problems, or social justice? Well I’d argue that war is one of the world’s more preventable evils. I object to the militarisation of conflicts, and the tendency to start conflicts under the guise of righteousness or superiority. Too often we end up with nebulous but politically-useful concepts like ‘the Cold War’ or ‘the war on terror’ which mean nothing but enable governments to justify acting on lucrative economic and geopolitical interests.
Why we go to war / a soldiers’ purpose
In many ways the discomfort I feel is because history and the current day are being fused and presented as one – when the reality is that the world wars and our current conflicts are vastly different.
Someone who knowingly and voluntarily signs up to the modern day army joins an organisation that trains individuals in murdering other people as effectively as possible. They have agreed to follow to whatever orders are given, irrespective of how immoral or wrong the wider war in question may be (unless of course they choose to become a conscientious objector, but this remains a rare occurrence). This is in stark contrast to the many thousands of people who have no agency in war and violence being visited upon them.
I’m concerned that the colouring of ‘remembrance’ with jingoism means that the other victims are forgotten. Incidents of ‘collateral damage’ are a perfect illustration. For example, estimates are that in the six years after invading Iraq, approx 100,000 civilians have been killed through military action and ensuing civil unrest, and 179 British soldiers have died in action or other related causes. That’s a ratio of 558 Iraqi civilians for every one British solider – in Iraq alone. Who is remembering these people who didn’t voluntarily risk their lives?
And while I feel sadness when I see the coffins draped in the Union Jack being flown back to UK military bases from Afghanistan and Iraq, the reporting of such events is always a bit hollow. From reading the newspapers, it seems a given the entire armed forces are made up of ‘brave heroes’; an alluring characterisation for potential recruits, but also an unrealistic misrepresentation of individual fallibility and the impacts of the mental and physical stresses of a warzone.
The army today portrays itself to be an exciting ‘job’ with perks and benefits – a million miles away from the circumstances of the majority of soliders in the trenches for example. Maybe this is why there seems to be surprise when soldiers are sent to distant lands to ‘defend our freedoms’, and horror when there are casualties ‘in the workplace’.
We forget that when soldiers kill and are killed, that this is the military’s raison d’etre.
Wearing a poppy
Many people feel almost morally blackmailed to buy and wear a Poppy – as highlighted infamously by Jon Snow. The rabidity with which the wearing of poppies is now policed by the tabloid media is becoming increasingly ridiculous. Whereas in previous years public figures have been castigated for not getting involved early enough (I recall a Sun ‘campaign’ to get all Premier League football teams to have embroidered versions on their shirts), in 2010 the Daily Mail is attempting to create faux ‘outrage’ on the BBC starting too early.
It’s frustrating that public figures feel they must pander to this shrieking, and it frankly undermines the dignity and respect that remembrance arguably should involve. When a glittery poppy is precariously and hilariously pinned to a skimpy sequined bikini on Strictly Come Dancing, you have to question what purpose it’s actually serving.
So what about an alternative
I was interested in if there was anything else I could do, that to me would be more inclusive and constructive, and a quick search of the internet uncovered the White Poppy.
Its organised by the Peace Pledge Union and besides covering production costs, money raised goes to the Peace Research and Education Trust, which does peace work and campaigning for alternatives to war – rather than just picking up the pieces afterwards. For me the white poppy better reflects my feelings as it symbolises all victims of war – regardless of race, gender or religion and whether they are a civilian or solider.
There’s apparently been some anger expressed towards white poppies – for ‘stealing support’ from the red poppy campaign and a heated debate has ensued. But what has surprised me is that despite an initial reluctance to say anything, many more people than I expected feel uncomfortable about the pressure to buy and wear a red poppy and its connotations. Lots have asked about my white poppy and where they can get one themselves – so that they can remember victims of war in their own way.
For the reasons above I continue to wear a white peace poppy in the run-up to Remembrance Day, and if anyone else feels it’s important to remember war’s many victims, both past, present and future, I’d recommend they consider doing the same too.