Credit: Creative Commons

The darkness behind the Poppy

Credit: Creative Commons

Jonny Smart

“The funds raised by the Poppy Appeal are used to finance support for veterans of the British army; soldiers who have often been recruited from impoverished working-class communities. Having being discharged, these ex-Armed Forces members frequently end up battling with PTSD or other mental illnesses and an inhumane welfare system

Last week, when the Stoke City and Ireland footballer James McClean reiterated his refusal to wear a poppy on his jersey due to the belief that it would be disrespectful to the fourteen civilians murdered in his hometown of Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 by members of the Parachute Regiment, he was met with death threats and a barrage of intense criticism, including furious allegations that he was a “terrorist sympathiser” and enraged cries that he immediately leave the country he has “disrespected”. In recent years a number of people in public life, including the actor Sienna Miller and the England cricketer Moeen Ali, have also been hounded by individuals on social media and sections of the mainstream print media for appearing in team photoshoots and television shows without poppies.

The annual Poppy Appeal, run by the Royal British Legion, states that its mission is to remember the lives of all those who died “in active service to the Crown” and to honour “the service of the Armed Forces and Veterans” since WW1. Presumably this commitment extends to honouring and remembering all those who ordered, orchestrated and carried out war crimes and state-sponsored acts of terrorism and genocide, whether during the 1919 Amritsar massacre in India, where just five months after the cessation of WW1, troops of the British Indian Army opened fire upon a crowd of peaceful protestors, massacring between 379 and 1000 protestors and wounding thousands more within ten minutes.

Does the poppy remember the lives of the soldiers who carried out the Batang Kali massacre in Malaya, described as Britain’s My Lai, where 24 unarmed Malaysian villagers were rounded up and executed by the Scots Guards in 1948 amidst desperate attempts to maintain British rule in Malaya? How about those who carried out the Chuka and Hola massacres and the mass internment, torture and murder of millions of the Kikuyu populace in Kenya between 1952 and 1960 and those who committed war crimes as part of the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence and carried out the Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday massacres in Belfast and Derry during the period known as the Troubles?

Those who choose to not wear a poppy, while appearing in the public eye, are usually attacked by the British media for being unpatriotic and disrespectful to the heroism of the military and are harassed and threatened on social media by fervent British nationalists. Why on earth wouldn’t they want to proudly and patriotically wear a poppy, ignoring and disregarding evidence of the numerous horrific atrocities committed under the British Empire and by the British State in Afghanistan, Ireland, India, Iraq, Malaya, Kenya, Libya, Palestine, Yemen and countless other parts of North Africa and the Middle East in just the last hundred years alone.  

The history lessons taught in our schools and propagated by the media and the bulk of mainstream politicians inform us that British foreign policy has often been a necessary force for good. Lessons focus in particular depth upon the horrors of Nazi Germany and the necessity of WW2, but also pedal a patriotic narrative of reluctant and unavoidable British intervention in WW1 to prevent the expansion of a German Empire, while simultaneously avoiding discussion of Britain’s own colonial atrocities.

In primary school, I vividly remember one of my teachers showing a map of the British Empire at its height in 1922, comparing it favourably to the land dominated by the Roman Empire, and proudly boasting that Britain controlled one quarter of the world’s land and one fifth of the world’s population. In recent years, major sporting and cultural events in Britain appear to necessitate the visible attendance of uniformed military members, most prominently at Wimbledon, football cup finals at Wembley or rugby games in the Six Nations, normalising the position of the military within our society. This insistence is reinforcing deference while silencing questions over the role the Armed Forces actually play.

Given this rather depressing context, it’s hardly surprising that polling from 2016 suggests that 44% of the British public are proud of Britain’s history of colonialism and 43% of British people believe that the Empire was good, necessary for “development” of other parts of the globe.

The narrative, of a sometimes flawed but fundamentally necessary and legitimate history of British military interventions, is used to shore up support for future military operations, usually labelled as humanitarian actions, that serve the political and economic interests of the British State. It’s a dangerous and utterly false narrative that desperately needs to be publicly discussed and repudiated, but one that has remained dominant, reinforced by the patriotic displays of British militarism and jingoism that reach their annual apex during the choreographed pageantry of Remembrance Sunday.

Unquestionably, the poppy has been co-opted and weaponised by the far-right in Britain as a symbol of patriotic pride and as a stick to beat those who favour a more nuanced and critical analysis of both Britain’s past and present global role. Yet, despite claims to the contrary, the Poppy Appeal has always been innately political, with all profits going to fund past and present British Legion personnel, regardless of the ethical and humanitarian questions of the nature of their service, and with intimate connections to the global arms trade, with both Lockheed Martin and BAE systems, two of the world’s largest manufacturers of weapons, sponsoring national Poppy fundraisers and British Legion events.

Those who attempt to point out the atrocities committed by British forces or to discuss alternative interpretations and meanings of World War One immediately become the victims of a militant form of poppy-shaming, accused of disrespecting the sacrifices of the dead and the glorious heroism of our troops. As the military forces stream throughout the crowd-lined streets of Britain on Remembrance Sunday each year, the end of the fighting of World War One is intimately tied to patriotic support for the British military in the 21st Century, and as a consequence, blind absolute support for the foreign policy of the present government.  

The funds raised by the Poppy Appeal are used to finance support for veterans of the British army; soldiers who have often been recruited from impoverished working-class communities, often through misleading propaganda campaigns and exploitative recruitment drives in schools and colleges. Having being discharged, these ex-Armed Forces members frequently end up battling with PTSD or other mental illnesses and an inhumane welfare system, with many ending up homeless, in prison or dying from suicide.

The patriotism of the Poppy Appeal thus works to silence criticism of the Ministry of Defence and the British Government for their absence of adequate support and assistance for those who have left the military. The fervent nationalism of the campaign and the immediate rush to hound those appearing in public life without a poppy serves to prevent and silence questions about the way people are recruited into the army, and what happens to them afterwards, and aims to immediately shut down debates surrounding British foreign policy in 2018, laying the foundations for future military interventions, invasions and atrocities.


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