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How politicians use the poppy appeal to make today's wars more popular


One day this week I carried out a little experiment as I travelled around. I went by train from London to Hertfordshire and back, then journeyed on the tube across central London and later to my home in Hackney. I did a rough count and I reckon that no more than 1 in 20 of my fellow passengers were wearing red poppies. Contrast that with the pervasiveness of the poppy from virtually every ‘official’ source.

Everyone on television is wearing a red poppy. The BBC must get through boxes of them every day. Sports reporters, foreign correspondents, studio guests appearing for one minute, all magically wear a poppy.

It isn’t just the media. The defendants in the News of the World phone hacking trial sport a fresh poppy every day. The train on which I travelled was decorated on the outside with appeals for the poppy. The station where I bought a ticket had collecting boxes on the counter. So do the supermarkets, so do university cafes and canteens. Today all the mainline railway stations in London will have service men and women selling poppies, blessed by the Tory mayor of London. The bar of one of London’s most radical theatres has a poppy appeal box on its counter.

The discrepancy between this barrage of poppy selling and the actual take up has become more noticeable in recent years. It has ceased to be a symbol which people could choose to wear, but where there was no obligation to do so, to one where remembrance (as defined by the red poppy) is de rigeur, and anyone who chooses not to is deemed to be dishonouring the dead.

It is worth examining how this has come about. The poppy is of course the symbol adopted after the First World War in memory of those who had died in the ‘war to end all wars’. The number of deaths has been estimated at 20 million across different countries, with 750,000 combat deaths from British servicemen alone. The majority died in atrocious conditions, driven towards barbed wire and machine gun fire by generals whose ignorance was matched by their refusal to face reality.

That reality, of death in mud, of battles where the dead were numbered in thousands by the hour, of the terrible effect of gas, the injuries which brought lifelong physical and mental illness, the complete futility of a war dominated by trench warfare, where the front lines changed hardly at all even after major battles, the wilful sacrifices of human life by those in command, all helped to engender an opposition to the war on a scale never before seen.

The war ended in revolution in the defeated countries, in Russia, Germany, Austria Hungary, the collapse of the old empires of Europe, and mutiny and strikes in Britain. Many of those who fought, along with their families and loved ones, rejected the jingoism associated with so many of the military top brass and their supporters in government and opposed any further wars.

The ‘war to end all wars’ did nothing of the sort. Since its beginning, nearly 100 years ago, there have been wars which have caused even greater casualties. Millions died in supposedly regional or contained wars: in Korea, in Vietnam, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, in Rwanda. 

While in the years after the Korean War, Britain tended to stay out of direct involvement in wars (chastened by its disastrous intervention in Suez in 1956, and economically constrained from maintaining the world wide military presence which once sustained an empire on which the sun never set), the end of the Cold War rekindled a new imperialism.

Britain was now the most enthusiastic ally of the US as it embarked on a series of wars in the Middle East and South Asia. When George Bush launched the War on Terror in 2001, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was his keenest supporter. Blair had already backed the previous US president, Bill Clinton, in his Kosovo war. Blair emerged as a hero to the Kosovans and an advocate of further ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

The mixture of imperial aggression, hubris and wilful ignorance of the consequences that marked the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq meant that both wars ended in failure for the Western powers. Wars were not meant to be unpopular, according to the politicians, but opinion polls showed that they were bitterly contested and as they developed only became more so.

As this has manifestly become the case, so there has been more emphasis on supporting the troops, as opposed to supporting wars. The boosting of the poppy appeal is part of that process. In that sense it appeals to most people’s decent sentiments, regardless of their politics. They do not want to see people dying in wars and they want to pay respects to the dead of previous wars.

That is all fair enough, but when the poppy is used to bolster the status quo and justify wars, then that is a different matter. The sufferings of those who died and were injured in previous wars should not be used to try to make present wars more popular.

This is particularly important because next year marks the 100th anniversary of beginning of the First World War, and there are already many signs that government and media plans under way will use the anniversary to recast that war as one for democracy, not as the senseless slaughter of young men fighting for different empires which it actually was.

That really would be a travesty of the truth. Maybe that’s why in recent days the Stop the War office has been inundated with requests for white poppies, commemorating peace. Many who ask for them say that they do not want remembrance to be confused with support for war. That really would be a disservice to those who have died. 

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