The Politics of Poppies: Can We Remember in Peace?

In the 100th anniversary year of the beginning of The First World War, the issue of war remembrance and the collective memorialisation of past conflicts have been renewed with a heightened sense of controversy. Although critics point to it as a glorification of war, trivialisation or sentimentalisation of conflict, the Royal British Legion’s well-renowned Poppy Appeal has been one of the most contested remembrance acts since its creation in 1921. The controversy begs the question: can we ever get it right? Between the extremes of conflict glorification on the one hand or glossing over unfortunate moments of our history on the other, will we ever reach a happy medium where we can remember without offending?

In Britain, this year in particular, efforts to memorialise and pay tribute to British lives lost during the First World War have surpassed many national expectations. From the BBC touring companies promoting history in action around the UK; to the planting of 888,246 ceramic poppies on the grounds of the Tower of London, each one representing every British death recorded during the conflict, the build up to the 11th November has been more keenly felt this year than ever before. In an effort to cater to every possible aspect of poppy related remembrance, the introduction of both white and purple poppies in 1933 and 2006 respectively, has sought to renew the ‘political correctness’ of the act, the former seeking to recognise a commitment to everlasting peace, the latter to the sacrifice of animals during conflict.

Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence, ©2007, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence, ©2007, some rights reserved

Both have come under harsh criticism since their respective introductions. The white poppy, first produced in 1933 by the Peace Pledge Union and famously disparaged by Margaret Thatcher,[1] has been criticised for its lack of recognition for the sacrifice of those who fought during the Great War, favouring instead to gloss over uncomfortable truths of our conflictual history. The proceeds from the sale of this poppy are not received by the Royal British Legion, and thus have come under equal criticism for failing to financially support those affected by conflict. Similarly, the purple poppy, recognising the suffering of animals during war, has been disparaged as it appears to many that this symbol prioritises the importance of animals over those who may have been affected by war but are not officially remembered by the red poppy, such as civilian causalities.

In October of this year, the introduction of the Poppy Hijab, designed and created by Fashion student Tabinda-Kauser Ishaq to commemorate the 1.2 million Indian and 400,000 Muslim soldier who lost their lives alongside British troops during the conflict, has sparked outrage amongst critiques on social media. Along with suggestions that the hijab’s religious significance may be undermined due to the presence of the symbol, it appears to many that this item symbolises more than a commitment to remember, but a prioritization of British types of remembrance, a concept which is not well received amongst many. However, in introducing these new symbols, the act of remembrance has been made more accessible to walks of society who may not otherwise choose to identify with the red poppy, which itself has been criticised as obscuring and  somewhat glorifying the realities of war, heroic sacrifice and unnecessary violence.

Despite the red poppy’s controversial significance, it seems that wearing a poppy today has become more than just an act of remembrance, but a political minefield. Sporting the flower on one’s jacket seems warranted earlier and earlier each year, with the BBC officially adopting the symbol on the 31st Oct, amongst reports of ‘poppy patrollers’ circling studios affixing the pin to any wanting lapel.[2] It seems here that the true meaning of collective remembrance has been undermined. In favour of presenting a politically correct, patriotic image to the nation, the charitable and voluntary nature of the act is lost. This has been highlighted by cases such as ITV presenter Charlene White’s refusal to wear a poppy on national broadcasts, emphasising the fact that she is not permitted to sport any other charitable symbol, such as the Red ribbon for World AIDS day, due to ITV’s impartiality rules. As a result, she has been subject to wildly sexist and racist criticism throughout social media[3] which she describes a pitifully ironic when one considers that the lives that the poppy commemorates, were those taken in the pursuit of freedom, a freedom that includes the right to decide to not wear the poppy.

It could be argued that the poppy in this context is used socially to enforce an unthinking patriotism, and to punish and discipline those who would question the morality of war or the values of militarism. This is visible both in the media and the political sphere, where politicians arguably use the poppy as a symbol not so much of remembrance, but one of political one-upmanship. As Douglas Murray of The Spectator suggests, it seems as though parties lie in wait of the day when they can challenge a political opponent who has forgotten to wear their poppy, thus implying that the latter’s support for the armed forces is altogether less stoic.[4]

This hypothesis, although it tells of just a small part of disturbing truth, brings us onto the main criticism levelled at the poppy appeal: the idea that amongst controversial claims of commercialisation and trivialisation of conflict, it has buried the real meaning of remembrance under a façade of paper pin badges and poppy paraphernalia. With this in mind, it seems as though we are still a long way from reaching a collective act of remembrance that is acceptable to everyone, despite continued efforts. However, amidst the unrelenting controversy, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the sacrifice of all our armed forces in every conflict in which they have served, and the continued sacrifice of men and women on the front line today. The 11th November, poppies or no poppies, provides the one opportunity in the year to revere the armed forces for their dedication, actions past and present and to offer a compensatory appreciation from the public at large in recompense for those who have paid the ultimate price for their country. For the other 364 days, it is not often that the actions and sacrifice of the armed forces are thanked, or even publicised. Sadly, in this way, Remembrance Sunday not only provides us with an opportunity to remember, but an excuse to forget.






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