The recent controversy over John Kiszely, President of the Royal British Legion, who claimed to have access to the highest echelons of government in terms of manipulating arms deals, cast a shadow over the venerable institution. What the case actually illustrates more effectively is the links between the Royal British Legion and arms companies; any idea that the Legion is anything other than an extension of the pro-war hawkish lobby should be dissolved by this revelation.
The red poppy is an embrace of militarism, an acceptance of a society based around military membership. Now, if you do support the army or do believe in the justification of their campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa or Libya – and of course we know that at least the first two campaigns did not enjoy majority support of the public – then by all means buy a red poppy. But our culture has developed an unwavering support for the army. Hardly a sitting of PMQs can go by without Cameron and Miliband trying to out-do each other in their attempts to milk the deaths of troops abroad.
And of course the elephant in the room – “I don’t support the war, but I support our troops.” This mantra is always played out by people who want to present the folly of war as a problem of politics rather than the army. Well, it is – but troops are not machines. There is no conscription in this country so every soldier who agrees to participate in a war does so of his own free will. He may be threatened with unemployment or court martial – but surely this is the obvious moral option when being faced with, say, the order to murder innocent Iraqi civilians in an illegal war. They may think they love their country and that they’re doing it for the right reasons – but so do the EDL and the BNP and yet you’d never suggest they should be forgiven because they think they’re doing the right thing. All soldiers take a moral choice to participate in a conflict and if you disagree with that choice, then you should withdraw your support.
White poppies have been produced since 1933 and since 1934 have been produced by the Peace Pledge Union. They emphasise the key fact about any war – that the victims are overwhelmingly civilians who play no part in the decision-making process of the conflict, who usually harbour none of the resentment, prejudice and imperialist attitudes that provoke wars.
In war, you must always support the victims. Remembrance Day began after the Great War as a warning never to let it happen again. But now its become an establishment ritual, a self-congratulatory nod by the the powers that be to maintain a militarist sheen over society and deflect criticism the violent and exploitative campaigns that our money and resources are wasted on.