On Wearing Poppies

This post was written by Owen on October 31, 2009
Posted Under: Anti-War

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:

  1. People who don’t wear red poppies face anger and abuse
  2. It’s become politicised in some contexts, like Northern Ireland
  3. It’s associated with militarism and the justification of war
  4. 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.

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Reader Comments


This is pretty much exactly how I feel about it. Pink poppies, perhaps? ;-)

Written By Sean on October 31st, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

This a very good post. So good in fact, it means that I will have to bin the 400 odd words I had already penned in anticpation of Monday for a piece on exactly the same topic!

I am going to wear a single red poppy on the 11th alone. The ‘Poppy Race’ by politicians and other self-promoters alike is one of the most disturbing assaociated trends. But the concept is not a bad one.

Maybe a red poppy and a peace symbol?

Written By Dave on October 31st, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

A typically well-argued, and interesting post from you. On the question of ‘sacrifice’, I think your (logically correct) disagreement with the implicit appeal to guilt is worth exploring a little. I’d agree in wondering whether this is sacrifice in the sense we often think of it viz. a willing loss made for some higher purpose, and in the typical case, for the benefit of others. Adding to this the fact that we don’t have a prescription army, then ‘sacrifice’ seems the wrong word in the context of the military.

Soldiers, do an exacting job and I have enormous ‘virtue respect’ for them in any case i.e. the virtues they exercise daily are ones that generally appeal to human notions of that-which-is-worthy-of-respect: discipline, courage, comeradeship and psychological resillience. So on one counterargument, it could be said that the poppy appeal and the general “respect the military!” sentiment is really a bow to those qualities, with ‘sacrifice’ and other emotive words conveying that. As such, institutional concerns about the role of the army may be irrelevant up to that point.

By another counterargument we could say this: Because soldiers follow orders, on signing up they sacrifice a vital chunk of their freewill (both their moral free will and their choice-of-action). In particular, they lose governance over one of the most fundamental of human behaviours — the deliberate assessment of and response to risk. Ultimately that mean their lives. So in this sense, then, sacrifice is probably an accurate way of describing the situation. But it remains a personal sacrifice under that argument — not one I’m really obliged to respond to.

Taking the more institutional/sociological level now, this could be said: because the army is an institution, and not always morally the sum of its parts, we can wonder whether the purposes our military are put to, are worthy of the noble connotations of sacrifice (“fighting the good fight!”). Clearly, this is at least not always true. But can it not be said that because we have a voluntary military, their end of the social division of labour exacts a higher cost than most of us ever have to tolerate in our lifetimes. Thus in this sociological/institutional sense, they are at the most dangerous end of the social contract. Therefore, observing as social agents rather than Owens and Tendais, they do indeed make a sacrifice. And, still in this sociological sense, recognition of them as a ‘caste’, through parades, military honours, and poppy appeals, sustains their morale in that role.

All these reasons, are why I’m reluctant to attribute moral culpability to the army for the orders of the government, or to individual soldiers for the orders of their commanders when exercising the general function of a military. This, note, clearly excludes soldiers who err in their own capacity, such as in committing war crimes or employing gratuitous brutality.

So I have strong views about war as a *state* activity and how particular states use it and have used it. But then, my disapproval rests squarely on the shoulders of the government and its advisers. I will wear a poppy (red — for symbols retain continuity because of their form as much as their substance), but I will, whenever possible, vote against unnecessary wars, and, through constant public pressure, hope that government should fear long wars.

Written By Tendai on October 31st, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

Last week I saw a stand where two RBL people were selling poppies, and on it was written “1914 – The Glorious War”. I could not think of better reason for wearing a white one, which I now do.

Written By Stuart Jeffery on October 31st, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

I’ve always worn a white poppy. Whilst I accept that in the rarest of circumstances a war is the lesser of two evils, those circumstances are so rare (WW2 being the only example I feel strongly about) that I have no problem wearing a pacifist symbol.

Written By Salman Shaheen on October 31st, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

It is about giving money so that a charity can help house the many troops who now live on the streets, it’s allow the Charity to help people get off drugs, it’s about allowing the charity to help give advice and help to the many people who come back mixed up suffering serious mental health problems, When your dead your dead, when your mangled up and need help this is why we help.

red pink white blue I do not believe in the stupid comment of you will remeber them , they are dead and gone, if you do not like this do not go to war, but the people who live on , living in a world that politicians cannot or will not help except with grand looking offers of millions given to the wrong area. I give to help the damaged

Written By Robert on November 1st, 2009 @ 10:16 am

I joined the army because I failed to find a job, it was a bad period in my life.

Many people join the military for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is not to die for your country, people want to live.

But the red poppy is simple a Charity was once made to allow people seriously injured to make poppies to sell , now of course most of the poppies are what made in China or Pakistan and sold here as more and more of the Remploy factories close the meaning has become, how to make money. What do you now do with the money you make, if it’s is to help the injured the mental scars then fine, if it’s about remembering the dead then sadly thats rubbish we do not remeber the dead, I bet the kids to day could not even remember who was running the dam country, they know Hitler was evil and Churchill was a great leader who saved the UK ask them to name a dead solider they say I’ve no idea.

poppies have lost the appeal it once had, but the meaning of helping the thousands of troops badly scared live a life is worthy

Written By Robert on November 1st, 2009 @ 10:23 am

Is the red poppy really a militaristic symbol?

The symbol of the red poppy was chosen because of the poppies that grew in the fields where the first world war had been fought. Rather than glorifying this war, its association with this conflict has always reminded me of its horrors and the courage of the men and women involved all wars.

I don’t think the tone of remembrance services can truthfuly be said to glorify war. Quiet, sombre reflections on periods of conflict, death and suffering? Yes. Celebrations of violence and military glory? Not really.

Wearing a red poppy doesn’t mean that you agree with the reasons for each and every war. Just that, for one day, you’re remembering the people who fought and died in terrible circumstances, on whatever side.

Written By Alex on November 1st, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

Dave: Glad you like it. Apologies for buggering up your posting plans.

Tendai: There may well be a sense in which members of the armed forces *can* legitimately be said to me making a sacrifice, but I don’t think it’s at all the same sense used by the RBL in the passage I quoted. You could also say that teachers, nurses and firefighters make sacrifices of a more or less similar sort to the kind you’re talking about. As to the moral culpability of a soldier who obeys immoral orders from a (military or political) superior, it’s an issue on which I’m pretty much totally agnostic – it seems too strong to say that you lose all your moral agency simply by dint of being in uniform, but I can see how the culture of obeying orders without question might well make it difficult to make informed moral choices at times.

Alex: If sombre reflection on the horrors of war and the poor bastards who get caught up in it was all that the red poppy symbolised, then I’d have absolutely no problem with wearing one. But I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not sure I’d accuse the RBL of glorifying war, but
claiming that the British soldiers who died in all or most of the conflicts we’ve been involved in from WWI up to now ‘made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country’ is clearly going a step further than merely reflecting on how terrible war is – it’s making an implicit judgment about the rightness of those wars, and it’s a judgment that in many cases I strongly disagree with.

Written By Owen on November 1st, 2009 @ 7:45 pm


But also, I’m never convinced by the argument that WW2 was a positive example of the functions of the nation state…

Written By Richard on November 3rd, 2009 @ 9:43 am

I shall be wearing a white poppy and face the predictable anger and abuse as did those pacificists in ww1 who were white feathered. (who turned out to be right, it was all just a needless waste of life in the end)

Written By John on March 6th, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

Why bother to wear a white poppy? what good or assistance will it do for those that Need the help and support, None!
The are just prompting anti war /military forces.
Where do these white poppies come from and if you paid any money for them where does that money really go ?(It seems to be self circulating)

The Green poppy fundraising has gone to the IRA & Co.

The white poppy like the Green poppy appears to be used as a political band wagon on the back of the appeals helping those that have served and need assistance.
I My disgaree with Wars and other such bloody habits of man kind alas that is not going to help those that are in need of help at this time.

RBL is a Registered Charity No 219279
Neither the white or green poppy are reg charities.

White & even Green poppies appear to be have motives that are political, nothing more, you can do that without desecrating the concept of remembrance or riding on the back of those genuinely supporting those in need of support after conflicts.

Yes have your/our protests and “education” against wars and usless conflicts, but do not denig those that have already paid the price by abusing their sole means of raising funds.

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