by Robyn Banks
If I believe something, does that make it true? If you believe that the poppy is a symbol of peace and remembrance, does that mean you’re right and I’m wrong? Is the meaning of a cultural symbol decided by its creators, by the powers that be who would use it, or by the culture at large who see and understand the symbol? Or, is it simply enough to repeat something over again until it means what you want it to mean?
Some would undoubtedly argue for historical purism, and for accepting the original meaning as canon – but those are the kind of people who pronounce ‘gif’ with a soft j. Language barbarians such as myself like to point out that it does no good to dig your feet in to the ground and insist on staying where you are- culture, language, symbols and ideology are all subject to change at the understanding of people, lest we find ourselves picking apart the ‘Buddhist roots’ of the swastika and hailing it as a symbol of peace. Our memory of history isn’t as good as we think it is, being that we perceive all past events through the eyes of today- it surprises many to learn that not so long ago, pink was for boys and blue was for girls, because it’s a gendered symbolism so ingrained it almost seems natural, as though babies burst from the womb with automated colour preference. Likewise, when it comes to well-known cultural symbols such as the poppy, its meaning seems automatic in British culture, its presence arriving every November like clockwork with assumed continued consent and support.
And it’s hard to argue with the concept of the Royal British Legion, a charity set up to look after returning soldiers and their families, bar that it should really be paid for in guaranteed taxes rather than through precarious fundraising. Every year I walk past the poppy sellers, but, although I believe strongly that returning soldiers should be looked after to the highest degree, I never buy a poppy. I haven’t worn a poppy since I became politically conscious, and, honestly, wearing a poppy would make me a heretic in my own community.
Walking around UEA campus in the two weeks of the poppy appeal this year, I didn’t see a single person wearing one. On one of these days, I had a vague idea there might be a two minute silence. Attending a meeting at 11am, I asked if anybody knew about it- nobody did. Nobody protested against it- there were no poppy burning Muslims or angry Irish republicans- the day simply passed unobserved by nearly everybody I know and I think that’s because, in this particular community, it’s implicitly understood to represent, in some form, colonialism, nationalism, and the support of war.
Although its background is a point of contention– some would claim that its use in the sale of war bonds and in recruitment during WWI in the US tarnished its ability to ever symbolise peace from the off- the intent behind it is inevitably good. So why is it that, nearly every year, a spokesman from the Royal British Legion is required to publicly insist on its goodness, informing us over and over again that it’s ‘apolitical’ and ‘not a symbol of war’? It’s because, unfortunately, the RBL is out of step with culture. While their website states that wearing a poppy is a personal choice and not compulsory, the actions of culture writ large- which presenter Jon Snow described as ‘poppy fascism’- say otherwise. After every protest to do with poppies, both by those who don’t want to see it and those who want to see it everywhere, the RBL is forced to insist that using the poppy in this way ‘demonstrates a misunderstanding’ of its meaning. But whose misunderstanding? While they insist that the symbol is ‘not a reflection of politics’, the poppy remains highly politically charged.
Even the colossal enterprise FIFA is not exempt from the rule of the poppy. In 2011, FIFA attempted to uphold its rules to do with not wearing political symbols on pitch by preventing British football players from wearing poppies. After a lengthy campaign by the Daily Mail, pressure from the government and the Royals, and two members of the EDL climbing on the roof of their premises in Zurich, they were forced to capitulate. FIFA were concerned they might ‘jeopardise the neutrality of football’, but it was insisted that the symbol was non-political, harmless, innocent. Nothing divisive to see here. So, if it’s really that inoffensive, why is it such a contentious issue? Why do Irish footballers, who don’t wish to commemorate British troops for, ahem, bloody good reason, receive abuse for not wearing a poppy? Why do we care so much when somebody isn’t wearing one?
The fact is that the poppy is only used to commemorate Allied war dead- the victors, never the losers- and in that way it subtly remembers victory with pride. Our narratives about both world wars still firmly place both camps in to the good guys and the bad guys, and despite our knowing that war today is more about trying to bomb terrorists, missing and hitting schools then dealing with thousands of immigrants with nowhere to live rather than the honourable battles of old we like to imagine, the story of the men in white hats has proved too politically useful to be let lie. The remembrance of soldiers from World Wars 1 and 2 stretched to include soldiers from all imperialist wars, and the ‘just war’ is used to justify unjust war crimes. The BNP and the EDL use the poppy as a symbol of militant nationalism, notorious war criminals like Tony Blair cry at the cenotaph and David Cameron pays his respects only weeks before voting to bomb another country, as if respecting the dead can be achieved by creating more wartime casualties. And I haven’t even mentioned the RBL’s funding from arms dealers.
The fact is that the poppy is only used to commemorate
Allied war dead- the victors, never the losers
In November 2010, six Veterans wrote to the British press claiming that Armistice Day had been ‘subverted’ as support for current wars, saying “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.” And they’re not the only veterans who feel this way.
You cannot claim that a poppy is both apolitical and a symbol of national pride, and you cannot claim it is just a symbol of remembrance when the term ‘pacifist’ is presented as an antithesis to remembrance on tabloid front pages, as if it’s a curse word. If the Royal British Legion can’t understand why their well-meaning poppy symbol is interpreted so negatively by so many, they need only look to the government and the press and the whipping up of right wing poppy hysteria in support of future conflict. Donning a poppy now would seem like giving in to a totalitarian, coerced patriotism which I do not want to be associated with. It’s got nothing to do with the wartime dead and everything to do with the current political climate, because, as a famous movie hero once said, “Ideas are bulletproof”- our soldiers may die in the dirt of Flanders field and the deserts of the Middle East, but so long as the poppy still marks us out as the ‘heroes’ of the glory of war, there will always be a steady line of men to replace them.