Exactly what Britons commemorate when they wear a red poppy has evolved ever since the emergence of that symbol in the aftermath of the First World War.
One of the reasons the poppy has been such an enduring symbol is that it has always had a capacity to mean slightly different things to different people. For some, it has conveyed the memory of personal and collective suffering (best illustrated perhaps with the saying: ‘lest we forget’).
For others, it is a sign of respect and support for the sacrifices of past and present soldiers (‘shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’).
For others still, it has helped recall and warn about the horrors of war (‘never again’). Buying a red poppy has also been a way of helping war veterans practically and financially.
But since the wars in Afghanistan (2001-2021) and Iraq (2003-2011), the tone of poppy commemorations has become increasingly militaristic and intolerant.
Alongside new initiatives like Armed Forces Day (a national day for people to ‘show support for the men and women who make up the Armed Forces community’), Help for Heroes (a charity that raises funds to provide long term assistance to wounded veterans), and the Invictus Games (a multi-sport event for wounded and injured former and current service personnel), red poppies have also become increasingly ever-present.
They can now be seen decorating vehicles all year round, as well as sports shirts, merchandise and even military jets (for a wide range of examples, check out the PoppyWatch Twitter feed).
Red poppies have therefore become the centrepiece of a period of almost ‘continuous remembrance’ – what one academic calls a ‘hyper-commemorative spectacle’. Poppy displays seem to have become an opportunity to demonstrate just how much one is respectful, patriotic, and supportive of the troops.
In this context, it is increasingly tempting for those who are uncomfortable with the tone of these commemorations to either wear a white poppy, or not wear a poppy at all. But doing so tends to quickly attract disapproval and controversy, especially in any public-facing role.
It might be helpful therefore to list some of the reasons why some people choose not to wear a red poppy – at least not unless and until some of these concerns have been recognised and addressed by the champions of the red poppy.
1. Wearing a red poppy can feel like an act of hypocrisy, given some of those who wear it or sponsor it.
Many poppy-wearing politicians and commentators claim respect for the sombre memory of war, saying ‘never again’ and proudly posturing as champions of peace one minute, then beating the drums of war the next. They might wear the poppy on Remembrance Day, but they eagerly advocate military interventions or higher military spending as the main and urgent response to the next ‘security threat’. Arms companies might like to fund poppy appeals and display poppies on their weapons, but this merely gives ethical coating and a veneer of righteousness to the industry that also produces war.
All this might be compatible with interpretations of the poppy as celebrating the work of the armed forces, but it is less compatible with those that remember war as something ‘never again’ to be repeated.
2. According to Victoria Basham (Professor of International Relations, Cardiff University), poppy commemorations have historically tended to centre around and glorify white male soldiers and their sacrifices.
This tends to ignore the women, the people of colour, and the conscientious objectors and others who have suffered and continue to suffer both at and away from the front.
In fairness, increasing recognition has been given in recent years to the fighters of colour and the non-male military personnel who have been involved in British wars since the early twentieth century.
The focus, however, has generally remained on the sacrifices of the fighters. Yet plenty of people away from the front and not actively engaged in fighting have been victims of British wars, too. Their suffering tends to be overlooked when commemorations focus on the typical fighters.
3. Poppy commemorations generally present armed forces personnel as ‘heroes’, which tends to obscure some of the less glorious activities some British soldiers have also taken part in: killing, but also stealing, raping, and torturing.
At the very least, it should not be surprising if the descendants of their victims take offence at the selective memory displayed by some poppy-wearing supporters of British troops.
There is also the separate question of how military institutions have responded to allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape within their ranks, dismissing the victims whilst apparently protecting the perpetrators.
What armed forces have done is not always ‘heroic’.
4. The patriotic atmosphere of dominant poppy commemorations effectively narrows our solidarity with victims of war. All such victims deserve empathy irrespective of their closeness to us.
The ‘good guys’ are never all on one side, the villains on the other. And there is nothing particularly British about exemplary morality or sacrificial solidarity.
When the remembrance of war is framed in patriotic language, the horizon of our compassion narrows, and it becomes tempting to explain the morality or immorality of acts of war based on who committed them, rather than on the acts themselves. British war commemorations could be better at remembering and expressing solidarity with all the victims and selfless sacrifices on all sides of the wars that involved British personnel.
5. Dominant poppy commemorations end up boosting rather than slowing the vast military-industrial-entertainment complex.
The poppy brand is valuable. It provides moral stature, electability, and plenty of lucrative opportunities for many of the active participants in the war machine, including politicians, pressure groups, media outlets, commercial interests and indeed the armed forces. Instead of stimulating deeper reflections, the poppy brand therefore ends up polishing the cogs of the war machine.
6. The narrative about past British wars which surrounds red poppy celebrations tends to reinforce the myth that British armed forces only get deployed when necessary.
Yet the British track record, especially compared to most other nations, is one of repeated military interventionism – by one count, 83 interventions since 1945.
Were all these wars really necessary and ‘just’? Did they even achieve their stated objectives (whether preventing decolonisation, bringing security and stability to local populations, or eradicating terrorism)? Has British military activity since the First World War really been consistently a sacrificial force for good in the world?
Presenting it as such through red poppy commemorations might be reassuring, and might incidentally provide a convenient narrative that helps justify new wars at the next tempting opportunity, but it is a questionable narrative nonetheless.
One might also ask whether it is actually ‘supporting the troops’ to send them out on missions whose aims are of sometimes dubious morality.
7. This one national gathering to solemnly remember British wars is too rarely taken as an opportunity for honest collective reflections on war in general, on British wars past and present, and on their victims.
Worse, red poppy commemorations serve instead to mute the voices begging us to engage in such reflections.
Question whether the victims of these wars were necessary, whether British soldiers should have been sent to die and kill, or whether these operations were successful, and you get ignored or even attacked for being disrespectful.
Yet is any moral duty to remember the victims of British wars really fulfilled if it does not include at least an openness to reflecting critically on war in general and on British wars specifically?
The trend with remembrance commemorations since the turn of the 21st century has made the red poppy at best increasingly compatible with British militarism, at worst complicit in it. There are many in Britain who therefore choose not to wear it, at least not until and unless those sponsoring it make room for more searching reflections and for wider expressions of empathy.