I very rarely wear Remembrance poppies, but I don’t really have a very clear justification for this. It’s probably partly because of my degenerate liberal North London upbringing; the importance of Supporting Our Troops and Upholding British Traditions wasn’t drummed into me from an early age to quite the same degree as it was for the average child, though I was certainly in favour of commemorating those who died in war in a general sense. Then, as I got a bit older, I also became vaguely aware of the discomfort some people felt about red poppies and what they were seen to represent, and of the white Peace Poppies and the alternative stance they embody. As a result I then came to have the equally vague idea that they, not red poppies, were the proper symbol for a paid-up member of the liberal left to wear at this time of year. As with the red poppies, though, I still wasn’t really able to properly articulate why this was. As such, this post is as much an attempt to get my own opinion straight on the matter as it is to persuade others to share my views. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t seem that easy to arrive at a definitive conclusion about what either poppy represents, so I’m afraid I still don’t have a categorical answer as to which poppy is superior.
But what, exactly, is the issue with the red poppy? According to the website of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which produces the white poppies:
‘[T]he poppy has had its problems. Some people who have chosen not to wear it have faced anger and abuse. It’s also got involved with politics. In Northern Ireland, for example, it became regarded as a Protestant Loyalist symbol because of its connection with British patriotism. And a growing number of people have been concerned about the poppy’s association with military power and the justification of war. Some people have wondered why, with a state welfare system, the services of the British Legion (slogan: ‘Honour the dead, care for the living’) are still needed; some say it’s disgraceful that they were ever needed at all – though the many suffering people who have depended on help from the British Legion are profoundly grateful. (Governments have been grateful too: ‘Governments cannot do everything. They cannot introduce the sympathetic touch of a voluntary organisation’!) But the question lingers: if the dead are said to have ‘sacrificed’ their lives, then why weren’t the living, who came out of the same danger, being suitably honoured and cared for by the state that sent them into it? The language of Remembrance, in the light of that, looks more like propaganda than passion.’
In short, then, the reasons why the PPU argues we shouldn’t wear red poppies are:
- People who don’t wear red poppies face anger and abuse
- It’s become politicised in some contexts, like Northern Ireland
- It’s associated with militarism and the justification of war
- The Royal British Legion (RBL), who raise money by selling red poppies to provide care for war veterans, shouldn’t have to exist – the State should provide the services it currently performs
Reasons 1 and 2 aren’t that compelling; the RBL can’t be held responsible for the way other people react to the presence or absence of red poppies, and do explicitly say that . On the other hand, though, it’s perfectly possible for something to have a meaning or association that wasn’t intended by its creator; the inventor of the 4×4 probably didn’t intend them to be used by Jeremy Clarkson fanboys to take their minds off their many deep-seated insecurities, for example. So the issue, really, is to what extent the red poppy has these unintended associations, which isn’t an easy question to answer. My personal impression is that the antipathy towards those who don’t wear poppies is a more serious problem (septicisle has a good post on the issue from this time last year), but overall I don’t think either reason is very convincing as a reason not to wear a poppy, as opposed to merely being a reason to defend the right to freedom of choice for those who choose not to wear them.
Reason 4 seems sound, in that providing welfare services to war veterans should undoubtedly be the job of the government that sent them to war in the first place. But is that a reason not to give money to the RBL? I think there should be more State assistance for homeless people, but declining to give money to Shelter solely on that basis seems counter-intuitive, to say the least.
It’s reason 3, I think, which is the most persuasive. One page on the RBL website reads:
‘Each year, The Royal British Legion establishes a Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, London and Cathays Park, Cardiff.
The Fields become a sea of Remembrance Crosses with scarlet poppies – a touching symbol of Remembrance and tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.’
The PPU, though, argues that:
‘That word ‘sacrifice’ is a key word in the misleading messages sent out by those who support armies and war. It is used too often to comfort grieving relatives (though with decreasing success where, for example, soldiers killed in Iraq are concerned). It is used shamelessly to give recruits a misplaced sense of worth.
‘Can this be the right way to think about war, when we know so much more about what war means? How should we really respond to the Legion’s appeals? Its 2003 campaign letter was headed ‘They still serve. They still sacrifice. They still need us.’ How should we start making sure that this need not be true?’
This, I think, is important. I firmly believe that commemorating members of the armed forces who died in wars is a good and important thing to do, but not because I want to thank them for the ‘sacrifice’ they made. For the most part (with some exceptions, principally those members of the armed forces who died in World War II – on which more will be said below) they were sent to their deaths needlessly. World War I, the Russian Civil War, Suez, both Gulf Wars…what were the soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in those wars ‘sacrificed’ for? I’m pretty confident it wasn’t ‘our freedom’. And that’s to say nothing of wars like the Falklands, where the cause might well have been just (liberating people who wanted to stay citizens of a democracy from a military junta) but where negotiation might have been an alternative to conflict. We should commemorate deaths in these wars because they were tragic and unnecessary, and because the same thing shouldn’t be allowed to happen in future, not because they were worthwhile sacrifices.
So should you wear a white poppy instead? Perhaps. The white poppy’s intended message is:
‘… the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts than killing strangers. Our work, primarily educational, draws attention to many of our social values and habits which make continuing violence a likely outcome…The outcome of…recent military adventures highlights their ineffectiveness in today’s complex world.
Now 89 years after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ we still have a long way to go to put an end to a social institution, which in the last decade alone killed over 10 million children.’
…which is all pretty laudable. The only snag is that the PPU is, unsurprisingly, a pacifist movement (though the White Poppies website doesn’t advertise this particularly prominently) and doesn’t seem to have a very positive view of those of us who are happy to campaign against war in the vast majority of cases but believe that conflict may sometimes, tragically, be necessary. World War II is of course the classic example, but by no means the only one. (East Timor, perhaps?) The caption accompanying this audio clip, which concerns the wearing of poppies on BBC TV programmes* suggests that the white poppy isn’t intended to be a pacifist symbol, but once again, intention isn’t everything. It’s hardly surprising that a symbol produced and worn by members of a pacifist movement should be associated with pacifism. And it’s equally unsurprising that non-pacifists might be uncomfortable wearing the white poppy because of that. So what colour poppy am I going to be buying? Still no idea, I’m afraid. Maybe both?
*As it happens I do strongly agree with the PPU’s claim that the special status the red poppy enjoys is unjustified (it’s the only symbol that’s allowed to be worn by BBC TV presenters and police officers, for example), but I think that’s a separate discussion to the one in this post.