Who is the red poppy designed to remember? The answer might surprise you

Many people in the UK wear a red poppy at this time of year out of a laudable desire to honour and remember the victims of war.

I have often been told by red poppy wearers that they wish to commemorate all those killed in war. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that this is not the stated purpose of those who produce the red poppy, the Royal British Legion.

According to the LegionRed poppy, the red poppy does not even commemorate all the British dead.

The Legion is quite explicit in stating that the purpose of the red poppy is to honour British military dead. At a stretch, they will commemorate allied military dead. But civilian dead don’t get a look in.

What about civilian stretcher bearers in the Blitz, killed as they rushed to save the lives of others? Shouldn’t they be honoured on Remembrance Day? No, says the Royal British Legion.

As the Legion would have it, the poppies they produce do not honour the innocent children killed in the bombing of (say) Coventry, let alone the equally innocent children killed in Dresden.

If you click on the “What we remember” link on the Royal British Legion’s website, you will found this blatant statement:

“The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.”

I do not wish to engage in such partial and sectarian remembrance. But it gets worse. The front page of this year’s Poppy Appeal website includes a large picture of a current soldier, with the headline:

“The poppy doesn’t only support veterans of the past”.

Current members of the forces are now given at least equal, if not more prominent attention, by the Royal British Legion on the web. The Legion clearly has a political position of encouraging support for the British armed forces as an institution, and by implication supporting war as a means of addressing conflict and celebrating military values such as unquestioning obedience.

Of course, the Legion has every right to adopt this position and to make an argument for it. But let’s not pretend it’s politically neutral.

Despite all this, the Legion does some good work. Their website includes a relatively prominent section about supporting veterans with mental health problems. Sadly, this is overshadowed by all the nationalism, militarism and romanticising of war with which their publicity is glutted.
White poppies
I want to commemorate all those killed, injured and bereaved in war. That’s why I wear a white poppy, symbolising the need to remember all victims of war and to honour them by working for peace in the present and the future.

You can buy a white poppy at http://www.ppu.org.uk/ppushop.

16 responses to “Who is the red poppy designed to remember? The answer might surprise you

  1. I’m a bit mystified why you would think that honouring dead and injured soldiers would be “sectarian”. On the face of it, that’s just a misunderstanding of the word “sectarian”. I can see that you’ve mobilised it here to express disapproval of any specific ceremonies connected with the UK military. Where you lose me is your implication that to honour the UK military dead is, ipso facto, to dishonour civilians, the dead of other nations, and so forth. I mean, it’s not as if your lapel were an index finger. You don’t get married to the UK military, forsaking all other human beings, just in virtue of honouring their sacrifice. Yet this is the whole implication of your claim that the red poppy is ‘sectarian”. Could you please explain?

    Isn’t there something disingenuous about presenting the white poppy as the ecumenical, honouring-all-comers alternative. On the contrary it expresses support for the Peace Pledge Union, an organisation with an honourable faith, which is nevertheless one which to the great majority of the military and civilians who died in our various wars would have been complete anathema. Would you correctly honour a Jewish soldier of the Kaiser’s army by erecting a christian symbol on his grave? No more do you honour the military dead with the symbols of pacifism. By all means wear those honourable symbols of an honourable cause- but don’t present them as a non-devisive alternative to the red poppy, when they are, by purpose and design, nothing of the sort.

    The wearing of a white poppy is an honourable statement of dissent from a majority view that at one time was close to being a consensus- the view that it can be fitting and right to wield lethal force against an implacable foe. To that principled stand one can only respond with respect. But it is nevertheless possible to be irritated when one is labelled as “romanticising” war just in virtue of a fundamental disagreement about pacifism.

    • The point of the white poppy is that it represents the idea of pacifism, which although you may disagree with, is still something many people believe in. Remembering the dead whilst condoning war inadvertently is terrible because we will end up having to remember more, which begs the question, what is the point of remembrance? Ultimately we are not remembering those who died and are therefore mourning them, we are remembering war, thus condoning it. You only need to look at the planes they have covered with images of the red poppy to see that. How do they remember soldiers? And it is sectarian because by remembering soldiers we leave out everyone else affected by war.

      • Thank you for the reply, which I’m sorry not to have seen in a timely way. Might I respond to “condoning war inadvertently”?

        I don’t support fighting Hitler “inadvertantly”. My support is very much advertant. But a support for this or that war is not to be confused with generalised support for war, astract noun, and you don’t advance a very convincing argument for pacifism if you fail to make that distinction.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, David, and sorry I haven’t had chance to reply sooner. I appreciate your taking the time to explain why you disagree (rather than just hurling abuse, as some people do). Debate is important.

      I am not for a moment suggesting that we should not be remembering and honouring British military dead. Nor am I suggesting that it is sectarian to do so. My objection is to honouring *only* British military dead; to the organisation of remembrance ceremonies that deliberately exclude from remembrance anyone other than the British armed forces. It is this that I regard as sectarian.

      You’re right to say that the white poppy is not a neutral alternative. I didn’t mean to suggest that it was. What I meant was that I wear it to remember all those killed or suffering as a result of war (while aware that some of them would not like me to wear it). What I was objecting to was the idea that that red poppy is politically neutral. Both red and white poppies are political.

      I am glad you regard the wearing of a white poppy as an honourable choice. I respect many people who wear red poppies. I am not suggesting that all red poppy wearers romanticise war. Sadly, however, the Royal British Legion does so, with its portrayal of all British forces personnel as heroes who “died for us”, whatever the war or circumstances in which they were killed.

      • Sorry not to have seen your reply in a timely way.

        You complain that the BL portrays “all British forces personnel as heroes who “died for us”, whatever the war or circumstances in which they were killed.” Is this true?

        Certain British personnel have I think been convicted of offences against civilian and military law. I am ignorant of statements by the British Legion asserting that those individuals are heroes. It’s possible that in the above statement you were offering to point out cases of this sort? If there were such, that would bear out your claim somewhat.

        Alternatively, you weren’t meaning to assert that the BL celebrates criminals as heroes, but rather differently that whether someone can be said to have ‘died for us’ must be a matter of whether we individually approved of his project. This is certainly arguable- in so far as any proposal about how to use words is arguable. But three objections occur.

        First, the proposal is strikingly ironic, given the Christian origins of the PPU. If I reason from the general principle that X only died for Y if Y approved the details of Xs actions, that’s most of the Gospel out the window.

        Second, and more substantively, what servicemen ‘die for’ isn’t only the project of any given conflict they are engaged in, but the continuation of the British State and such law as exists within it. On the face of it that supplies one fundamental sense in which the BL treats a soldier’s death as altruistic, and that sense has nothing to do with romanticising war. If it romanticises anything, it is the State- but if the PPU objects to this on the basis of support for anarchism, that might be worth stating.

        Third, given BL and cenotaph parade emphasis on the veterans of the first and second world wars, it is patently untrue that the BL is insensitive to the nature of the war or the circumstances in which they were killed. Indeed many object that it is altogether too sensitive to that question, given point 2.

  2. Someof the stuff I’ve read tonight since that muppets rant on fb would be funny if not so disgusting. As for this piece above. The British legion can say what they want but the fact remains that in its simplest description the poppy is a mark of remembrance. Yes its widely recognised to honour British and commonwealth soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to serve their country and protect all of us, and I proudly wear a poppy to this end. But who ever wears a poppy it’s completely up to that Individual who they wear it for and remember. All this nastiness and venom is just a way to disrespect Britain. Its quite simple, if it offends you………don’t look at it!!!
    I’d also like to point out that thousands of young men from the republic died in WW1.So those saying its offensive to Irish people. Maybe you’s should learn a bit more before slandering mocking and Insulting those passed soldiers who died so that we might live

    When you go home, tell them of us…… We give our today for your tomorrow

    • Thanks for your comment, Neil. You’re right that different individuals wearing poppies will attach different meanings to them. I respect many people who wear red poppies, who often don’t share the British Legion’s attitudes.

      However, you seem to be accusing me of saying things that I have never said. I have never said that poppies are offensive to Irish people. You’re right that many people from what is now the Republic died in WW1. I want to remember them (and all people killed in war).

      In what way have I displayed “nastiness and venom”? I am trying to honour all the victims of war (including members of the UK armed forces). I am seeking to engage respectfully with those who disagree with me. If you can give me an example of something I have said that it is hateful or venemous, I will readily apologise for it.

      I certainly don’t disrespect Britain. I love Britain. I have lived here all my life and choose to remain here. I am not keen on the UK government or its armed forces (I mean the institution, not the individuals) but then I don’t support any armed forces. I repeat: I love Britian and the British people.

      Again, let me say that I want to remember all members of the British armed forces who have died or otherwise suffered in war. It is simply that I also want to honour civilians and people who are not British *as well*. This doesn’t mean honouring British military dead any less. Some British miilitary dead undoubtedly served the British people, and most of them surely believed themselves to be doing so. But it is not honouring the British military dead to pretend that they all died “for us” or “protecting us”. Those killed in World War One, for example, died due to the decisions of the rich and powerful in the UK who were no more innocent or righteous than their counterparts in Germany. It was a war between rival empires; those killed on both sides were victims of imperialism and should be mourned and remembered.

  3. To honour the dead of one side only is to dishonour the peace with which that war ended. To honour the dead of both sides with a white poppy is to honour not only that peace but the continuing idea of peace

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