What Does The Red Poppy Really Mean?
Increasing pressure to wear the red poppy obscures its true meaning writes Lindsey German
'As direct experience of war becomes more distant, and killing in war more remote for those of us in the richest countries (although not in Raqqa, Kabul or Sanaa) so this war which ended nearly 100 years ago is turned into a symbol of the nobility and rightness of war.'
It’s that time of year again. The near compulsory wearing of the poppy is here, and will continue for the next three weeks. I was on Sky News a few days ago debating the significance of the poppy. It’s worth saying that on the reception desk at Millbank there was a poppy appeal tin, the presenter, weather forecaster and other guests were all wearing poppies.
I pointed out that – while I had absolutely no problem with people wearing a poppy if that was what they wanted to do – there was huge pressure to do so as the event has become bigger and bigger in recent years. I also said that there appeared to be pressure on journalists and guests to wear the poppy on screen, and that the purpose of the operation was to gain support for current wars and a justification of all things military.
The arguments from my fellow panellist was that it was about remembering, about children going on school trips to Flanders, about democracy and freedom. I don’t have a problem with remembrance or teaching history. But I think to cast the First World War as a struggle for freedom and democracy when it was fought by empires for control of land and markets is a travesty. The great powers of Europe (and later the US, which emerged as the real victor of the war) sacrificed an estimated 20 million people in a war still remembered for its senseless slaughter.
It is almost impossible to imagine the rise of fascism in Europe in the decades afterwards without seeing it as in part a product of that slaughter, the brutalised society it represented and the post-war settlement which settled very little.
Today there is no one alive who fought in the war, or was an adult during it. Why do we remember it with such fervour? Because history is not just about the past but about the present. It is interpreted by those who rule us to justify their present actions. As direct experience of war becomes more distant, and killing in war more remote for those of us in the richest countries (although not in Raqqa, Kabul or Sanaa) so this war which ended nearly 100 years ago is turned into a symbol of the nobility and rightness of war.
As I said in the interview, I’m in favour of children learning about this and other wars. But surely they should learn about the whole truth of the war, which we should remember ended in revolution in several of the belligerent countries – a recognition of the widespread revulsion to it. They should not be pressured into wearing poppies.
And if we want to remember the war dead, perhaps we should spare a thought for the one-million plus dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere since the start of the war on terror.