Today marks the centenary of World War I as millions of people up and down the country attend events in remembrance of Britain’s war dead. The decision to wear a poppy in tribute is a personal one, but many choose to instead wear the white poppy of peace or no poppy at all out of principle. Some public figures have been shamed for refusing to wear a poppy, but Jonny Smart argues it’s been used to fuel British nationalism and legitimise the continuation of imperialist foreign policies…
This month, Stoke City and Ireland footballer James McClean reiterated his refusal to wear a poppy on his jersey in the coming weeks. He explained it would be disrespectful to the 14 civilians murdered in his hometown of Derry on Bloody Sunday (January 1972) by members of the British Parachute Regiment. For this, he received a barrage of intense criticism, furious allegations he was a “terrorist sympathiser”, death threats, and calls to leave the country he was “disrespecting”.
He’s not the only one to have been hounded in recent years: actor Sienna Miller was criticised for removing her poppy as it was tearing her dress on live television, while England cricketer Moeen Ali committed the heinous crime of having it fall off. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, famously attacked for his traitorous failure to proudly belt out God Save the Queen at the Battle of Britain memorial service and for bowing insufficiently at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in 2015, has even been shamed for wearing a poppy that is apparently too small.
The annual Poppy Appeal, run by the Royal British Legion, states that its mission is to remember the lives of all those who have lost their life “on active service to the Crown” and to honour “the service of the Armed Forces and Veterans” since WW1. Presumably this commitment extends to honouring and remembering all those who ordered, orchestrated and carried out war crimes and state-sponsored acts of terrorism and genocide. These include the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919, when just five months after the cessation of World War One, troops of the British Indian Army opened fire upon a crowd of peaceful protestors, massacring between 379 and 1000 protesters and wounding thousands more within ten minutes.
Does the poppy remember the lives of the soldiers who carried out the Batang Kali massacre in Malaya, described as Britain’s My Lai, when 24 unarmed Malaysian villagers were rounded up and executed by the Scots Guards in 1948 as part of desperate attempts to maintain British rule in Malaya? How about those who carried out the Chuka and Hola massacres and the mass internment, torture and murder of millions of the Kikuyu populace in Kenya between 1952 and 1960? How about Black and Tans who committed war crimes during the Irish War of Independence? How about the British soldiers who carried out the Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday massacres in Belfast and Derry during the period known as the Troubles?
Those who choose to not wear a poppy while appearing in the public eye are rounded on by the British media for being unpatriotic and disrespectful to our heroic troops. They’re in many cases directly harassed and threatened on social media by fervent British nationalists. So why on earth would they want to proudly and patriotically wear a poppy in the face of such intolerance? Why should they be expected to disregard evidence of the numerous horrific atrocities committed under the imperialist British state in Afghanistan, Ireland, India, Iraq, Malaya, Kenya, Libya, Palestine, Yemen and countless other parts of North Africa and the Middle East in just the last hundred years alone?
We are taught in school that British foreign policy has often been a necessary force for good, and this message is amplified by the media and the majority of our mainstream politicians. History lessons rightly focus in depth on the horrors of Nazi Germany, but they also pedal a patriotic narrative of reluctant and unavoidable British intervention in WWI to prevent the expansion of German Empire. Discussion of Britain’s own colonial atrocities at that time are conveniently avoided.
The horrific slaughter of 20 million people in WWI, an avaricious bloodbath motivated by imperialism and capitalism, has been reimagined and romanticised as a heroic defence of liberal democratic values. It’s an intensely patriotic and entirely ahistorical narrative which focuses on the brave sacrifices made by the soldiers of the British Empire, celebrating and remembering their coverage while simultaneously scorning and overlooking the appalling slaughter of those from other nations.
This nationalistic myth wholly ignores the role of the courageous German sailors and workers who participated in the naval mutinies in Kiel and Wilhelmshave. It ignores the marches upon the industrial cities of Northern Germany and the eventual spread of the working class led revolutionary movement throughout the German Empire, orchestrated by Worker’s and Soldier’s Councils, agitating towards a programme of democracy, anti-militarism and socialisation of industry. It was these actions that led directly to the proclamation of the German Republic, the abdication of the Kaiser and the end of war itself.
Much is omitted in this narrative: the courageous actions of the German working class in 1918, the bravery mutineering French soldiers in 1917, the conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the army and all those within the socialist and communist political groupings that remained implacably opposed to the war, orchestrating and attending anti-war demonstrations and producing anti-war propaganda throughout Europe and America. None of these brave working class heroes are remembered – instead, official Remembrance ceremonies and Poppy Campaign events prefer to glorify and legitimise British militarism from throughout the ages.
In primary school, I vividly remember one of my teachers showing the class a map of the British Empire at its height in 1922. He compared it favourably to the land dominated by the Roman Empire and proudly boasted that Britain controlled a quarter of the world's land and a fifth of the world’s population. It’s something that should be a source of shame and embarrassment, but major sporting and cultural events in recent years have only reinforced the notion we should somehow be proud. For example, uniformed military members are treated with reverence when they visibly appear at Wimbledon, the FA Cup final or Six Nations rugby games.
The position of the military has become normalised in our society. Gordon Brown’s creation of Armed Forces Day in 2009 along with extensive coverage of the Military Wives Choir have served to glorify the forces as an inviolable British institution above criticism, reinforcing deference while silencing questions over the role they actually play. Given this rather depressing context, it's hardly surprising that polling from 2016 suggests 44% of the public are proud of Britain's history of colonialism and 43% believe the Empire was good and necessary for "development" of other parts of the globe.
This racist narrative of a sometimes flawed but fundamentally necessary and legitimate history of British military interventions is used to shore up support for future military operations. These are almost always labelled as humanitarian actions, but they always serve the political and economic interests of the British State. It’s a dangerous and utterly false narrative which desperately needs to be publicly discussed and repudiated all year round but happen to reach their annual apex during the choreographed pageantry of Remembrance Sunday.
Unquestionably, the poppy has been co-opted and weaponised by the far-right in Britain as a symbol of patriotic British nationalist pride and as a stick to beat those who favour a more nuanced and critical analysis of both Britain’s past and present global role. Yet, despite claims to the contrary, most notably by David Cameron, who insisted that wearing the poppy was not ‘a political act’, the Poppy Appeal has always been innately political. All profits go towards funding past and present British Legion personnel, regardless of the ethical and humanitarian questions behind the nature of their deployment and service.
Moreover, in recent years, there has been a strengthening in ties between the Poppy Appeal and the global arms trade. Both Lockheed Martin and BAE systems, two massive manufacturers of weapons used to commit human rights abuses and fuel destructive wars, sponsor national Poppy fundraisers and British Legion events with the effort of glorifying military conflicts and legitimising war profiteering. The funds raised by the Poppy Appeal are used to finance support for veterans of the British army, soldiers who have often been recruited from impoverished working-class communities. It’s not only adults who are targeted; children are tacitly groomed for recruitment in schools and colleges.Having being discharged, these ex-Armed Forces members are often forced to battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, other mental health issues and an inhumane welfare system, with many ending up homeless, in prison or committing suicide.
In essence, the patriotism of the poppy appeal works to silence criticism of the Ministry of Defence and the British Government for their absence of adequate support and assistance for those who have left the military. The fervent nationalism of the campaign and the immediate rush to hound those appearing in public life without a poppy serves to prevent and silence questions about the way people are recruited into the army and what happens to them afterwards. The ultimate aim is to shut down debate surrounding British foreign policy in 2018 and lay the foundations for future military interventions, invasions and atrocities. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and paying tribute to our fallen family members from over the generations, but it’s important to acknowledge the context in which they died and the motivations of their imperialist superiors. Militarism and poppy fascism is an insult to their memory.