To some of our first year international students the red remembrance poppy may be an object of obscure cultural fascination: the quasi-mandatory dress code of public figures that emerges like an apparition in mid-October and vanishes abruptly after November 11. Nonetheless, most of us have long become accustomed to the near ubiquity of this symbol in the weeks preceding Remembrance Day.
Less prominently featured in the popular discourse, however, are dissenting ideas – principally due to the pernicious influence of our ideologically homogeneous mainstream media. You may have noticed, for example, the posters of black poppies currently decorating the streets of Glasgow but not stalled to reflect on their significance. The 16,000 black poppies placed across the city by self-styled ‘counter-militarism activists’ represent the 16,000 conscientious objectors who defied conscription during the First World War. In the coming days you might also spot a solitary white poppy amidst the sea of red. The white poppy was first adopted as a symbol of peace by the Women’s Co-Operative Guild in 1933 and has since been circulated by the Peace Pledge Union. Furthermore, there are many people, including myself, who choose to eschew the symbol altogether for a variety of political or religious considerations. I do not intend to account here for the plethora of individual motives for rejecting the symbolism of the red remembrance poppy, but only to illuminate my personal thinking on the matter.
Firstly, I think it is critical to emphasise that I do not wish to antagonise anyone who does decide to wear the red poppy, particularly ex-servicemen and women, those currently serving in the armed forces and military families. I am extremely mindful of the sensitivity that surrounds this issue and, indeed, I am profoundly sympathetic to the desire to remember and honour those who have lost their lives in conflict. I do, however, believe that if the ideas that underpin a symbol are to carry any legitimate force then they must be properly subjected to debate.
My central concern with the red poppy is that is has been deeply politicized by a section of the right-wing media to promote the interests of the corporate and political class. This is perhaps most evident in relation to the Iraq War where the potent symbolism of the red poppy was exploited to chastise anyone who opposed the war and label them as somehow ‘unpatriotic’ and lacking in gratitude for the dedication and bravery of the armed forces. In reality, of course, the cause for which the army was fighting (namely, American commercial interests) could not have been further from the idealised notion of ‘Queen & Country’. This reveals what I think are the chauvinistic connotations that now come implicitly attached the symbol of the poppy: by appealing to our visceral attachment to the abstract notion of nationhood, the establishment hopes to nullify criticism of what our military is actually being used for.
Certainly, the idea that the actions of the British military complex can go unchallenged should be unconscionable to any rational person since it often compels us to pledge our unwavering support to what can only be accurately described as state terror. Here are just some of the UK government’s ‘post-colonial’ highlights: the fatal shooting of 14 unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry (Bloody Sunday 1972), the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano as it sailed away from the Falklands exclusion zone resulting in the loss of 323 Argentine lives (1982), and allegations of complicity in the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay during the ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11. Would you really want to wear a symbol that was being shamelessly appropriated to justify actions like these?
This leaves what is maybe the strongest objection to my position: whatever your views are about the foreign policy decisions of the British government, soldiers are simply doing their job and The Royal British Legion’s ‘Poppy Appeal’ provides necessary funding to assist them and their families through the hardships that the work entails. This argument does seem convincing, but I would only respond by observing that the mere fact that charitable donations are required to sustain an adequate level of rehabilitation for people leaving the armed forces, as opposed to being funded fully out of government spending, demonstrates just how hollow and disingenuous the declarations of ‘national pride’ from our poppy-wearing politicians really are.
As you can probably see, my problem with the red poppy, and Remembrance Day in general, is not so much with what it could be in theory, but with how it is rendered in practice. We could have a sober reflection on the essential futility of war, condemn the continued suffering and senseless loss of life across the world, and hope for a peaceful future. Instead, we get an orgy of nationalistic rhetoric and uncritical celebration of militarism. If you do decide to wear a red poppy this year, I urge you to remember that the life of an Iraqi child is just as valuable as the life of a British soldier, and to denounce military strategies that violate the basic principles of human dignity even when they are masqueraded as acts of British patriotism.