Poppy politics

IssueNovember 2011
Feature by Emma Sangster

Every year poppy fever rages higher as councils launch their local appeals with increasingly diverse events; schools and communities are urged to do their fundraising bit and the national appeal is launched with hit singles and celebrities. And you can of course follow trendy young “Poppy” on Facebook and Twitter.

This year three young Welsh boys are “the faces of this year’s Poppy Appeal”, chosen because their dad “died a hero in the war in Afghanistan” when his vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb. Under the razzmatazz which leads the appeal the British Legion do still carry a message about “learning from the past and resolving to make the world a better place to live in the future.” This message is rather hidden away but should be core to the purpose of the act of remembrance: that the suffering of these boys will not be forced upon their generation as they become young men. Yet the poppy-hype of recent years will inevitably glorify warfare and inevitably be utilised by those promoting the idea of the heroic soldier in order to reduce criticism of current wars and further political agendas.

Last year a letter published in the press from a group of veterans called for the sentiment of “never again” to be central to remembrance. They brought a brutal understanding of the nature of war. “There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.” The “month-long drum roll of support for current wars” may result in tens of millions being donated to the appeal to help the armed forces and their families but it stifles the debate about why we are sending them into battle in the first place.

Another ex-serviceman I spoke to recently met a young man with a missing limb in hospital who had been flown back from Afghanistan. He already felt abandoned by the army that praised his service to Queen and Country and then left him to the NHS. Did this young man go to war with his eyes open to the reality, understanding the full risks and obligations? It’s very unlikely, given the economical-with-the-truth methods used to interest, involve and finally recruit youngsters. And it becomes less likely as glorification of “our heroes” pervades society, reducing the chances that young people will seek and find information and gain the critical awareness that they need to make informed choices. Large numbers of armed forces personnel coming back with trauma of one kind or another will indeed need the services of the British Legion. It’s a vicious circle but one that is perhaps not so inevitable if, in our public forums, we fully recognise the horror and futility of war.

To this end one such explicit statement is the white poppy which recognises those who have been lost but also calls for peaceful alternatives to war. In 2007 the BBC stated that it did not allow other symbols of remembrance, including the white poppy, to be worn by presenters. Such statements reveal that white is deemed political while red is neutral. They fail to acknowledge that in associating with uncritical support of the armed forces, the red poppy conveys a deeply political message: a fact that is not lost on those who make war.

Wear your white poppy with pride.

Topics: Remembrance