As red poppies began to dot lapels in the lead up to Remembrance Day, I started to feel uneasy. The politicisation of the red poppy has become ever more pronounced as the original sentiments of the campaign are diluted and distorted by those with an agenda. By no means do I believe that individuals who wear a red poppy are pro-war jingoists; I respect anyone’s choice to wear one and don’t seek to criticise their personal motivations. However, the rhetoric of certain politicians, commentators, and the Royal British Legion undermines the idea of the poppy as a solemn symbol of respect, transforming the event into a glorification of and justification for war.
As opportunists with power use Remembrance Day to promote their own interests we should challenge their narrow interpretation of the World Wars and criticise politicians who send our country into conflicts. Too often the role Britain played in the World Wars is used to whitewash our Government’s own history of colonisation and genocide which they maintained long after 1945. I resent the waylaying of discourse from the powerful at the top to troops on the ground from past and present. It’s a savvy political move that turns criticism of war into a callous and disrespectful act, discouraging dissenting opinions.
Last week the RBL released a photograph of a group of children clutching a giant plastic poppy in T-shirts emblazoned with ‘future soldier’. To me this doesn’t represent a campaign for peace and an end to all wars; it suggests a worrying promotion of the military to young people. The poppy campaign is explicitly tied to the British Army’s current conflicts and is proudly supported by the arms dealer BAE Systems. A campaign of remembrance should advocate a conflict free world, not surreptitiously promote warfare. Currently there is little space for pacifist and anti-war voices to be heard.
For me, the RBL’s link of past and present conflicts is highly problematic. Recent and current wars in the Middle East are interventionist conflicts fought by service people with agency; they are not directly comparable to the World Wars. Yet they are clumsily tied together, subtly giving the RBL a monopoly on the remembrance and acknowledgement of the World Wars. The role and responsibility of modern British soldiers should be open to criticism. On a day when they are celebrated as heroes, it is hypocritical to ignore the thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians murdered by our military since 2001.
The overriding message of Remembrance Day should be a fierce advocacy of peace and a sombre reminder of the horrors of war. We can hold politicians to account while honouring individual soldiers and veterans. To use this time of year to start a self-critical conversation about our past and present conflicts and talk about the futility of war is not disrespectful but glorifying war and putting the military beyond criticism is an insult to the memories of the disenfranchised and powerless soldiers who were sacrificed by our government on the battlefields.