Can we talk about the poppies
As the annual Armistice Sunday draws ever closer, British people from all backgrounds get into hotter and hotter debates about the necessity or importance of the red poppy appeal. The biggest problem these debates face is either falling into the trap of blind nationalism or simply assuming the other party has some sort of vendetta against the memory of British troops past and present. Both of the outcomes are problematic, especially as the latter is often used as a tool to stir up racist sentiment suggesting that Muslims hate British troops.
I have spent a lot of the past few years constantly questioning where I stand on the circumstance, and admittedly I know I can talk from a place of secure safety having never lost a family member in living memory to war or living in a location afflicted with the horrors of war, but I do feel we need to have a more serious national discussion about the role of the poppies. Firstly the big thing I must highlight as a disabled person a lot of the advances towards equality for disabled people came as a result of protecting our injured heroes. So without this sentiment, a lot of developments (like the improvement of prosthetic, nationwide understanding of disability, or admitting men face mental health problems) would not have necessarily have happened in the way that they have. However, it is also equally infuriating that this had to happen in this way. One as simply it keeps this idea of hierarchy between disabled people — the honourable hero or the unfortunate invalid. Secondly, it is sad that the British populace as a whole would have otherwise left disabled people as subhuman without this humanising effect from the heroes.
The First World War was ultimately a needless loss of life, as it came about because of Imperial nations fighting over territory and without this hostility between them war would not have occurred. However, the Second World War is undoubtedly a moment of urgency as without the valiant efforts of the British forces, Commonwealth forces, Red Army, American forces, Greek forces, Chinese forces, and the numerous freedom fighters within France, Germany, Poland, Baltics, Balkans, Scandinavia to name a few, Fascism would have infested every corner of the world. This being said, victory has never been immaculate. This is one of the reasons we need to be critical, the criticism is not as we can just have a feeling of moral superiority but so we can truly learn from the past. Yes, the British forces fought the good fight, but while this was happening Winston Churchill was committing genocide in Bengal. Alternatively, after the Greeks managed to dispel the Nazis from Greece, British forces attacked the Greek freedom fighters simply because they were a bit too red. These particular problems are part of the reason I have always been sceptical of the poppy appeal, mostly because it does actively encourage the whitewashing of history; if the world wars are lessons of history we need to learn everything, not just pat ourselves on the back for winning.
Obviously, these two wars weren’t the only wars of the past century. This really should sadden, horrify, and anger everyone. The horrors of the Second World War and the incredible terrors of the Holocaust should have been the largest lesson humanity ever learnt. Growing up, an motto I often heard about the First World War was it was the - ‘war to end all wars’. This really shows our hypocrisy as a nation. In reality, the British nation exists on two layers — the political class and everyone else. It always terrifies me that the people who inevitably decide if we go to war are not the people who have to literally face it. I cannot imagine what soldiers and their families have to face, I also cannot imagine what citizens caught in the crossfire have to face, how could any human make this decision to commit countless lives to it? It is particularly monstrous when the person deciding has nothing to lose and can just sit back without feeling the weight of their decisions.
As we now sit a century away from the First World War, surely now is the best time to consider how much we have actually learnt from our past. This however is not likely to happen, especially when nationalistic sentiment does begin to reach a fever pitch during the proceeding days leading up to Remembrance Sunday. We simply have not learnt, we still get involved in needless wars, and our politicians regularly try to push us into more conflicts either by selling weapons to Saudi Arabia as it commits atrocities in Yemen, or stoking the flames of war through antagonistic military exercises on the Russian/North Korean borders. Surely it would be better for everyone if we did not get caught up in more wars.
This now brings me onto the British Legion, the charity founded the poppy appeal, and used the money raised to aid veterans and their families. Without a doubt a noble cause, but it still needs to be held up to the same scrutiny. This year in particular, the British Legion have been trying to ‘mythbust’ showing they do not promote war, are not about militarism or nationalistic sentiment, but about the protection of veterans when they return from war. This campaign is mostly in response to the growing success of the White Poppy appeal. My biggest flaws with this sentiment from the British Legion is not actively promoting war, does not free you from encouraging militarism. This militarism is not done overtly, the British Legion are not encouraging us to invade anyone (that is just a childish response) but there are more insidious problems of militarism. As we do not hold our soldiers to account we are whitewashing history, so through this half memory we are creating heroes with no faults meaning all of our military action is for the good of everyone; just leaving us to walking into militarism because ‘we are the good guys, we shall save the day’. If the British Legion, and supporters want to show they are not being militaristic we need to be increasingly anti-war. At a point in history with the largest success of Fascistic politicians in US, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and many more, we are on the verge of war and a catastrophic one at that. Remembering soldiers will not save us from it, we as a populace need to take the lessons of the past seriously and not risk endangering more lives needlessly.
I believe the White Poppy is the strongest stance, not because it is morally superior but because it knows we need to learn from our past if we are to improve our future. However, these are not the only notable organisations who really deserve more coverage there is a list below:
Veterans for Peace — an organisations of Veterans who actively try to push against militarism
Black Poppy Rose — an organisation who want to highlight the influence of non-white soldiers and their impact within historic wars, as they are often brushed aside due to the colour of their skin.
Peace Pledge Union — The organisation which founded the white poppy appeal.