The white poppy is about peace: lots of people think the red poppy is as well, but we cannot allow the politicians to use it to support militarism and war

Lindsey German

Within days of being elected Leader of the Labour Party on 12 September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn came under attack by the media for his refusal to wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day. A decision which reflects the view of Lindsey German, convenor of Stop the War Coalition, as expressed in this article from 2014.

It’s that time of year again. The poppy appeal has been launched in the run up to Remembrance Day. But I won’t be wearing one. Instead my poppy will be white, as a symbol of peace.

Remembrance Day is on November 11th, to mark the date on which the carnage of the First World War ended. The red poppy was adopted as the symbol of remembrance because of the large numbers of those flowers that flourished in some of the most deadly battlefields ever seen.

For much of the nearly 100 years since remembrance began, the symbol and associated ceremonies have been low key, without much wider political significance. All that has changed in recent years. It’s hard not to see the present poppy appeals as highly politicised. The events are organised by the British legion. The slogan this year is ‘Shoulder to Shoulder with all who serve.’

Now that isn’t about remembering the dead. It is about supporting the armed forces. And there is a difference. Everyone should be saddened at the death of a single person in combat, but that should not be used to justify wars that have no logical justification.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been deeply unpopular, with regular high levels of opposition shown in opinion polls. Recently that strength of opinion was shown to have even penetrated the brains of MPs when David Cameron lost a vote in parliament to launch air strikes on Syria.

The Ministry of Defence has been particularly keen to separate out opposition to wars from support for the troops. Organisations such as Help for Heroes have been set up in recent years to highlight the need to help injured soldiers and their families. The image of soldiers as heroes and their role as a force for good has been repeatedly promoted, even when it is contradicted by the actions of the British army in war situations, and by the actions of individual soldiers accused of maltreatment of Afghans or Iraqis.

The poppy appeal is an important part of getting this message across. Yet the whole message contrasts with the views of many former soldiers themselves. The survivors of the First World War did not view their experience as heroic, although it involved great bravery and hardship. In very large numbers, they rejected the war as pointless and brutal slaughter. Many who experienced subsequent wars saw war as wrong. Even those who did not do so often shrank at glorifying it. Maybe that is one reason why during the 1950s and 60s, when I grew up, Remembrance Day was treated much differently.

Now, we are inundated with red poppies. The BBC apparently flies them around the world so that its correspondents can wear them when they appear on camera. Studio guests are expected to wear them. Last year in London there were soldiers and military bands all over London mainline railway stations selling red poppies. Many people buy them for the best reasons: they want to remember or pay respects to the dead. Often they may oppose wars. But that is not true of the governments and institutions promoting them.

Equating the war dead with the armed forces is also inaccurate. The First World War was the last major war in Europe when the bulk of casualties were military. Now the vast majority of victims of war are civilians, but they are largely ignored by the hype round the poppy. While central London bristles with statues to often obscure past generals, it took decades to get statues to women workers or fire fighters after the Second World War.

We are approaching the 100th anniversary of ‘the war to end all wars’, and already politicians, right wing historians and the BBC are using the occasion to justify war. Surely we can remember the dead while campaigning for peace. The white poppy is about peace. Lots of people think the red poppy is as well, but we cannot allow the politicians to use it to support militarism and war.

29 Oct 2013

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