On this, the centenary year of the Great War, the clamours to conform were always going to be more insistent. And so, the red poppies issued by the Royal British Legion to mark remembrance for the nation’s fallen soldiers, seemed to appear on lapels far earlier and far more frequently this year.
It’s not really clear when the UK poppy enforcement started to get so bombastic, but it is preached to anyone in the public eye: Politicians, TV presenters, celebrities, and footballers are all required to wear one. Failure to do so brings a tide of criticism: for being “disrespectful” to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives, and for being somehow unpatriotic and “anti-British”.
It’s a claim that is at once nonsensical and also indicative of the true purpose of what British TV Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow described as “poppy fascism”: this insistence upon public figures – and the general public – wearing the designated red flower. Nonsensical, because why should red-poppy-wearing be the only permissible form of remembrance? And how thoughtful a commemoration is it, anyway, if you’re only doing it out of peer pressure?
If you think Snow’s description of poppy-wearing coercion is overdone, take a look at the flood of abuse that, just as one example, the ITV news presenter Charlene White received last year for very politely declining to wear one – on the innocuous grounds that she sees no sensible reason to single out and promote one charity over the several that she supports (British television presenters aren’t allowed to wear the emblems of any other charity).
Something very different
Or how about the boos that just greeted Wigan football club player James McClean when he declined to wear the poppy on the pitch. In a letter to the club chairman, McClean wrote: “For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.”
This great battle in which 16 million died, was an appalling blood bath fought over imperial interests, during which almost a million soldiers from Britain and its empire were condemned to senseless, gruesome, nightmarish deaths by a callously incompetent ruling elite.
The event he refers to, during which protesters were shot dead by British troops, underpins why he says he cannot share in the poppy mania; why it would, for him, be “a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the struggle”. But his careful words were lost upon the jeering crowds at Friday’s Wigan match and on social media.
Then there’s the torrent of sanctimonious scorn that erupted when the Guardian‘s art critic suggested that the Tower of London’s hugely popular commemorative installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each Commonwealth soldier who died in WWI, filling the tower’s dry moat, is “fake, trite, and inward-looking – a UKIP-style memorial”.
Amid the outrage, armed forces charities accused the paper of trying to “politicise a memorial” – as though the remembrance of young men sent to their slaughter hadn’t long ago been politically hijacked by an establishment dedicated to glorifying nationalistic wars.
And this hijacking is the reason that enforced red-poppy-wearing is so jarring. For it is a frightening sort of remembrance that demands to be defined through an entirely one-note nationalism over war – especially the first world war; the war that didn’t end any wars. This great battle in which 16 million died, was an appalling blood bath fought over imperial interests, during which almost a million soldiers from Britain and its empire were condemned to senseless, gruesome, nightmarish deaths by a callously incompetent ruling elite.
That the poppies are also about support for present-day militarism was made clear by British Prime Minister David Cameron who, in defence of the Tower of London’s memorial, said it served as a reminder of “how many people gave their lives not just in that conflict, although obviously the slaughter was horrendous, but also in so many conflicts since then where our Armed Services personnel have been defending our freedoms and our way of life”.
It isn’t just the noxious idea that, for instance, up to one million Iraqi lives were lost and so many more ruined in the illegal 2003 war on that country for the sake of “our freedoms”. It’s the suffocating idea that support for a terrible agenda of endless neo-imperial war is the only way to avoid accusations of hating Britain. Of all the things to love about the UK, why should this, one of the very worst examples, be the best display?
There are of course countless ways, personal or public, to respect fallen soldiers – not just the British among them – or to think about war and bloodshed; about all the futility and pain and all the lives cut short. What the Guardian‘s art critic and ceramic poppy disparager Jonathan Jones was suggesting, as he explained in a later piece, was that the Tower of London’s too decorous, too glossed-over display doesn’t do justice to the subject; that we “need to look harder, and keep looking, at the terrible truths of the war”.
Others, too, have proposed alternatives to the mass-imposed red flower. On Remembrance Day this year, Veterans for Peace will hold an alternative service, carrying a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge civilian lives lost in war. An organisation of former fighters now opposed to war, Veterans for Peace will wear t-shirts bearing the message: “War is organised murder” – the words of Harry Patch, who was the last British survivor of World War I until his death in 2009.
That there have always been alternate streams to the red poppy path – the white poppy movement, for example, dates back to 1933 – suggests that the current red poppy mania isn’t intended as remembrance so much as a kind of cultish determination to impose a particular reading of history. Wear a poppy, don’t wear a poppy – that’s a personal choice, but it’s really none of your business what anyone else does. And if you can’t tolerate such a tiny freedom, then you probably need to think a little bit more about what it is that your red-poppy-wearing is respecting.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.