In the days leading up to the 11th of November, the UK slowly starts to fill with little red drops. They appear as pins on clothing, in shops, and on TV. Football players’ jerseys and news anchors’ blazers are likewise garnished. Upon closer inspection, these specks of blood-red are in fact poppies, a symbol of remembrance of the British soldiers who have died in war.
Poppies have become controversial for many reasons. It was only recently that the British Legion, who produce the red poppies, said that they “acknowledge civilian deaths”—before that they only represented soldiers. The red poppy remains staunchly British: it is not meant to include any other nationalities. It remembers the dead not only of the World Wars, but in every war since. And in the century since its introduction, the red poppy has become less and less associated with its original message, that a war such as WWI should ‘never again’ happen.
I always have questions about the ‘official’ meaning of the red poppy, which remain unanswered. In celebrating those who fought, are we also celebrating their actions (including atrocities like the firebombing of Dresden)? In remembering the British soldiers who fought to preserve the empire (still in existence in India and various African nations even beyond WWII), are we endorsing the cause they were fighting for? What of the fact that many were conscripted or otherwise forced into service? And how do we square the remembrance of the dead with the fact that so many remembrance organisations and events are funded by firms like Lockheed Martin (whom Bob Dylan would call ‘Masters of war’)?
These questions are important to consider if you choose to wear the red poppy, but without ‘official’ answers they don’t provide an argument for or against. They simply illustrate the need for more consideration and awareness of what statement you are making when you wear the poppy.
However, by ignoring people of non-British nationalities (both allies and enemies), the red poppy is a symbol of British exceptionalism, and implies that the British army was always on the ‘right’ side of history. It ignores the fact that British soldiers committed atrocities and war crimes, and suggests that the civilians they killed do not matter. And, in putting British soldiers above all others, it contributes ( unintentionally, perhaps) to the glorifying of war in a nation that is constitutionally incapable of examining its own legacy and past misdeeds.
The red poppy is a symbol of the same national spirit that prevents the UK from recognising or addressing the crimes of its empire, contributed to Windrush and countless other examples of systemic racism, and led to recent war efforts like those in Iraq. I know that people who wear the poppy may oppose that national spirit, but it remains the case that the red poppy has those connotations, regardless of the wearer’s intent.
For those who still want to wear a marker that remembers people who died in war, there is the white poppy. It is not specific to any nationality, and includes civilians as well as soldiers. The white poppy is meant to both remember the atrocities of war, and be a symbol of peace. It is an inclusive symbol, removing any notion of British exceptionalism or glorification of war, and instead returns back to the original message behind remembrance day: ‘never again’.
Image from PXFuel