Friday, November 20, 2009

Thoughts on Poppies

Like millions of Britons, I wore a red poppy in the run up to Remembrance Day last week. I believe it’s important to show respect and gratitude to the war dead; there are few, I suspect, who would disagree. However, there are aspects of the poppy tradition that I have found unsettling. This year’s advertisements have seemingly tied the red poppy to current conflicts that Britain is involved in overseas. Many of these ads depict images of union jack draped coffins being loaded aboard transport aircraft in Afghanistan or Iraq. The caption reads: “For his Family’s sake, wear a poppy.” Not “remember our dead” or “support the British legion,” but “wear a poppy.” Make your support visible. Show it.

You can purchase a white poppy if you can find one (I could not this year). However the white poppy can cause problems, as the head of the BBC Editorial Policy stated in 2007, white poppies make a political statement (i.e. pacifism). Presumably the reason you do not see white poppies on television. White poppy sellers have been victims of abuse in certain circumstances. Schoolchildren have been told to remove them for Remembrance Day services. The London Fire service committed a “gaffe” by featuring white poppies on their Remembrance Day invitations. The Royal Canadian Legion successfully mounted enough legal pressure on Canadian peace groups to prevent the sale of white poppies.

Likewise, not wearing a red poppy can cause problems. England football coach Fabio Cappello was recently lambasted in the media for not wearing one and Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow annually attracts criticism for not having one affixed to his lapel when he reads the news (along with any other political, charitable or social symbol).

One constant in politics and society in general, is that it is extremely bad form to criticise a war when one's troops are fighting in it. Logically, a far more effective method of helping servicemen would be to question why wars are fought and hopefully prevent more soldiers being sent to die. Unfortunately, in modern times, there is confusion between remembering those who die in war and supporting war.

This confusion has amounted to a form of propaganda. Distribution of propaganda and disinformation is not always a conscious process. Often, messages with noble intention can be imbued with subtle undertones that have broader consequences. The poppy appeal focuses on exclusively on injured soldiers from our side. It ignores the casualties and injuries inflicted upon soldiers from the other side and the civilian population. It also has the unintended consequence of attaching moral legitimacy to current wars that Britain is involved in by associating them with the wars like world war one and two (which are held in absolute moral terms in Britain today).

The poppy appeal is ostensibly to raise money for serving and ex-servicemen. In which case, the question is raised; should the state not be doing more to help servicemen who it demands travel to a far off place, risk their lives, for ill-thought out wars without clear objectives? The government is asking soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to support various foreign policy objectives and in return the government’s leaders attend some parades and wear a paper flower a couple weeks per year.


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Louis said...

Forgive me if I seem ignorant about poppy. What is a poppy?Why is the color red is important. I know the sacrifices of our war veteran coming from a country who has been a battleground in WWII but should we be oppressed by the past if we dont wear the red one? I know the present generation is forgetting those that sacrifice a lot for today's freedom but at the same time I dont think alienating those who dont wear a red poppy seems a some type of racism....aren't we suppose to be uniting people to achieve what our war heroes sacrifice for?

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William said...

Great post Alex - and in answer to Louis - poppies are red because they grew on the mud of the battlefields after the first world war - and they just are and perhaps it resonated as a remembrance flower because red is the colour of blood and is associated with war