Of War and Flowers: Wearing White for Peace

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Describing the “problems” with the political manipulation of the red poppy, the Peace Pledge Union website states, “Some people who have chosen not to wear it have faced anger and abuse. It’s also got involved with politics. In Northern Ireland, for example, it became regarded as a Protestant Loyalist symbol because of its connection with British patriotism. And a growing number of people have been concerned about the poppy’s association with military power and the justification of war.” A prominent opponent of wearing a red poppy is Wigan footballer James McClean, whose letter explaining his reasons is here.

The Peace Pledge Union website also states, that the idea of decoupling the red poppy and Armistice Day (which was only renamed Remembrance Day after the Second World War) from the prevailing military culture dates back to 1926, when a member of the No More War Movement (establish din 1921 as a replacement for the No Conscription Fellowship, which was formed in opposition to compulsory conscription in 1914) “suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint ‘No More War’ in the centre of the red poppies instead of ‘Haig Fund’ [a reference to the Earl Haig Fund, a charity set up in 1921 by, ironically, by the British First World War military leader known widely as "the Butcher of the Somme"] and failing this pacifists should make their own flowers.” The Peace Pledge Union notes that the details of any discussion with the British Legion are unknown, but “as the centre of the red poppy displayed the ‘Haig Fund’ imprint until 1994 it was clearly not successful.”

In 1933, after input from the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the first white poppies appeared on Armistice Day, and continue to be worn to this day, although they are not promoted by the establishment. They can be ordered from the Peace Pledge Union — and next year I intend to buy a box and hand them out to my friends.

As the Peace Pledge Union explains, “The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War — a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers — but a challenge to the continuing drive to war.”

I cannot agree more — and I always make a point of saying that we, the pacifists, actually care more about our soldiers than the so-called patriots, because we don’t want them being sent, in the first place, to wars in which we should not be involved. This is something that is painfully apparent right now, as our involvement in Afghanistan comes to an end, with the loss of British lives — and far more Afghan lives — that no one can adequately explain.

As the Second World War veteran and social activist Harry Leslie Smith explained in an article for the Guardian last year, entitled, “This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time”:

Over the last 10 years the sepia tone of November has become blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders. The most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts. The American civil war’s General Sherman once said that “war is hell,” but unfortunately today’s politicians in Britain use past wars to bolster our flagging belief in national austerity or to compel us to surrender our rights as citizens, in the name of the public good.

Smith added, “From now on, I will lament their passing [the 'soldiers, airmen and sailors'] in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.”

Smith proceeded to provide a devastating analysis of the slaughter of the First World War, and why the government’s attempts to dress it up as part of “British values” is so offensive:

We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain’s population in 1913.

This is why I find that the government’s intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn’t know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.

My uncle and many of my relatives died in that war and they weren’t officers or NCOs; they were simple Tommies. They were like the hundreds of thousands of other boys who were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn’t care to represent their citizens if they were working poor and under-educated. My family members took the king’s shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.

80 years since the white poppies first began to be produced and worn, the establishment’s position on war has not fundamentally changed. Below is a powerful video by Vincent Burke, featuring his song “On Remembrance Day,” which was featured on the website of the excellent campaigning organisation Veterans for Peace UK, whose members will be walking to the Cenotaph at 2pm today carrying a banner that reads, “Never Again,” and will be holding a brief ceremony at the Cenotaph to remember all of those killed in war.

The video shows all the many many wars the UK has been involved in since 1914 — all supported by the Church of England — and says that “if 2015 is a year of peace for the UK, it will be the first for a hundred years.”
<iframe width="460" height="310" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/hPLtSkILwvs?feature=player_embedded" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Ever since Tony Blair took us into an illegal war in Iraq, following the largest protest in British history, when two million people marched against the war, it has seemed to me that we pacifists very possibly now outnumber the warmongers in the UK. Perhaps one day our dreams will come true, and Britain will cease to be such a relentless aggressor — and we can slash our annual £57 billion war budget and our absurd commitment to Trident and spend that money on peace and on the people.

Until then, I — and many, many other people — will continue to wear our white poppies with pride.

Note: If you are interested in peace, please also see the World Beyond War website.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

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