The ethics of the white poppy

“In Flanders fields the poppies grow / Between the crosses, row on row,” begins John McCrae’s famous poem – a rondeau which inspired the use of the red poppy as a symbol for remembrance. Now, nearly one hundred years on from the end of the First World War, red poppies remain the traditional way British military personnel who have died in conflicts are remembered.

But, much like McCrae’s poem, some people today see red poppies as deeply political symbols of British imperialism with multiple upsetting, offensive, and negative connotations. Red poppies, it could be argued, perpetuate a belief that war is inevitable, that war is good, and that only British soldiers matter.

While Red Poppies and McCrae’s poem both commemorate the British dead, they do not strive for peace, and they do nothing to respect other victims of war. Even the end of McCrae’s poem urges the reader to “Take up our quarrel with the foe”, and the Royal British Legion themselves – who are responsible for producing and selling poppies – have held events that are sponsored by some of the world’s largest arms producers. This makes them totally detached from any meaningful attempt to learn the lessons of war, because they are not striving for peace.

In 2014, for instance, the British Legion Young Professionals’ ball was sponsored by Lockheed Martin, who have a major role in manufacturing the Trident nuclear weapons system. While The Government and major public figures make it seem like Britain wants world peace, in 2016 Britain was the world’s sixth largest exporter of arms – and Britain consistently remains involved in (either directly or at least by exacerbating) major modern world conflicts. Before I continue – despite what the Daily Mail might have you think – as someone wearing a white poppy I don’t believe that if you decide to wear a red poppy you are racist, I don’t think you are causing offense, and I don’t want to take anything away from the people you are commemorating, because you are honouring an important cause. But I do think you can do more.

By wearing a white poppy, you are remembering all victims of all wars. This includes children and civilians (who make up 90% of people killed in warfare), and their friends and families. The white poppy remembers those who were forced to fight against their will or who were killed and imprisoned for not wanting to fight.

It remembers those with mental illnesses such as PTSD. It remembers the communities torn apart by fighting. It remembers the true horrors of war.


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January 2022
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