Respect is not enough

By Bernadette Meaden
October 31, 2017

Recently a former British Army Colonel posted a picture of a white poppy on Twitter with the message “Wear this symbol to commemorate & support Islamic State mass murderers, torturers & rapists who according to @PPUtoday are "victims of war". (@PPUtoday is the Twitter account of the Peace Pledge Union, which distributes white poppies)

The suggestion that the thousands of people, including military veterans, who wear a white poppy (with the word ‘peace’ at its centre) do so to support Islamic State is rather outlandish. 

However, the Colonel fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and must have seen terrible things happen to young men and women under his command. It is completely understandable that he feels passionately that those who were killed or maimed in the service of their country must be remembered, and that the red poppy, which has become the official symbol of that remembrance, must be respected.

But people who wear a white poppy, in my experience, do so not from a lack of respect, but a belief that respect is not enough. It signals a belief that we need to actively strive to prevent any other young men and women suffering the same fate, as Jill Segger explains here http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/24483

The day before the Colonel posted his tweet, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon complained about criticism of Saudi Arabia, because he said this was making it harder for the UK to sell fighter jets to that country. The fact that Saudi Arabia has an appalling human rights record, and is using weapons purchased from the UK to cause a humanitarian crisis in Yemen is apparently not considered an obstacle where arms sales are concerned. Mr Fallon, and many other politicians, apparently see no contradiction in wearing a red poppy to honour the dead, whilst simultaneously striving to sell arms to a brutal dictatorship.

The white poppy represents a striving for a culture of peace in which selling arms to Saudi Arabia would not be considered a wise or respectable thing to do. 

The red poppy raises money for veterans and their families, but has also been commercially linked to arms manufacturers. It represents mourning for the casualties of war, but does not dissociate itself from a culture that perpetuates conflict and deaths.

This is why some people feel that the white poppy now provides a way of honouring the dead – both military and civilian – which more accurately represents their values, and their longing that no more should die.

Even some military veterans now feel uncomfortable about the way official Remembrance has changed over the years. In 2010 a group of them wrote a letter to the press saying, “The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year's campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.”

One of the signatories of that letter, Ken Noviak who served in Northern Ireland and the Falklands said, "Part of me wants to be sensitive to the families who have lost loved ones and part of me wants to throw a bucket of blood into the living rooms of the nation every night to show people the true meaning of war.”

There is also something disturbingly incongruous about the red poppy, a solemn symbol of loss and remembrance, being increasingly used as a marketing tool for seemingly almost any product. On its website the Royal British Legion (RBL) says, “The Royal British Legion was voted the UK’s most trusted charity brand in 2015, with the Poppy Appeal standing out as the best known charity campaign. This means we are uniquely placed to create a mutually beneficial partnership that meets all the business needs of our corporate partners.”

It goes on to explain Cause Related Marketing (CRM) saying “Linking a brand or a product to The Royal British Legion can help increase sales, build customer loyalty, retain or recruit customers, and differentiate your brand in a competitive marketplace. Most customers agree that, price and quality being equal, they are more likely to buy a product or service associated with a cause they know and care about. We have extensive experience in creating innovative CRM partnerships”. This is why we can now see cheese being sold in the shape of a poppy, and extremely expensive jewellery or ‘poppy bling’ for sale. 

The RBL says “your poppy supports the Armed Forces community past and present". Is this not the duty of the State which recruits them, employs them, and makes the decision to send them into danger? There is certainly a need and an obligation to support people who have been damaged physically or mentally by their experience in the armed forces, but should they be reliant on charity?

When the British Legion was first formed it was an amalgamation of four organisations of men who had served in the First World War, and who found that on their return the promises that had been made to them were not kept. They returned to poverty and slum housing. One of those organisations had as its slogan ‘Justice Not Charity’, as they wanted proper government provision for veterans, not patchy charitable giving.

Of course we have come a long way since then. But perhaps not as far as we’d like to think.

We still see disproportionate numbers of veterans who are sleeping rough, or in prison. Being severely injured on active service can mean joining the rest of the disabled community in a humiliating and distressing struggle to claim a disability benefit. Civil society has stepped into the breach, bought poppies in their millions, and given generously. Yet shouldn’t adequate support be an automatic entitlement for people who have placed their very lives at the disposal of the State? Perhaps Justice Not Charity is still something to be achieved for our military veterans.

The tragedy, the failure, the horror of war is too enormous to be encapsulated by any symbol or ceremony. Poppies, white or red, are just our inadequate way of trying to acknowledge its incalculable cost, and for the wearing of them to cause conflict or division would perhaps be a supreme irony.

If you wear a white poppy or a red, or both or neither - peace, shalom, salaam.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.