Sunday the 10th of November saw another Remembrance Sunday, a day in which a sincere intention to honour the dead becomes dangerously intertwined with aggressive and intolerant British nationalism. While many British (or indeed, Irish) people wear the poppy merely out of a desire to show respect towards those who lost their lives in combat, many others display fascistic tendencies in their efforts to ensure that everybody wears a small red flower on their breast. Almost every November a public figure, often an Irish individual, chooses not to wear the poppy on television and is bombarded with vile, hate-filled abuse for their personal choice. Dara Ó Briain and Eddie Jordan have both been on the receiving end of such abuse and this year footballer James McClean was the scapegoat for the knuckle-dragging borderline fascists of Britain. Twitter instantly erupted with outrage when McClean was seen not to wear a poppy on his Sunderland FC jersey and I think its worth quoting some of the worst responses here-
Sunderland’s JamesMcClean refused to wear a poppy for their game against Everton. Perhaps he can go back home..is the famine still on?
Just heard that Sunderland’s JamesMcClean refused to wear apoppy on his shirt! Hope you choke on your Guinness you dirty pikey Irish MUG!
Of course, there is always an idiotic fringe element around any cause. The British press have also been remarkably condescending towards McClean’s decision however (The Daily Mail only added the reference to Bloody Sunday following complaints, showing a typical Mail willingness to overlook facts or context in order to fit their narrow bigoted worldview). Channel 4 presenter John Snow famously decried such attitudes as ‘Poppy Fascism’, refusing to wear a poppy on air. The problem is that so many of those who wear poppies sincerely believe that they are serving a worthy cause, including the increasing number of people in Ireland who wear them such as Roscommon TD Frank Feighan. I believe that many of these people would not wear the poppy if they fully understand its historic significance and current purpose.
One of the greatest myths surrounding the poppy is that it merely pays respect to the soldiers who died in the World Wars of the twentieth century. Were this true, it would certainly be difficult to argue against it being worn as few would begrudge the millions of soliders (Often conscripts) who died in the tragic unexpected slaughter of the First World War or the great struggle against fascism during the Second World War. However, depending on which source you consult, the poppy either commemorates all of Britain’s war dead or all who have died in conflicts since the First World War. In either case, it pays homage to many who died in upholding the British Empire and often engaged in viscous brutality in an effort to maintain British hegemony. I’m sure you are aware of the genocide, slavery and plunder which characterized the British Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries- from the crushing of Caribbean slave revolts to its brutal suppression of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, the British military played a terrible role in European imperialism. Yet even if we are to ignore such earlier crimes the twentieth century offers many examples of murder and torture by British troops involved in the upholding of colonialism. The Royal Air Force bombed Iraqi civilians during the 1920’s while the British government has yet to acknowledge the widespread torture and murder which occurred in Kenya during the 1950’s. In addition to such examples of colonial savagery, the British military have a long record of intervention in foreign nations to uphold British business interests intervening in both the Russian and Greek civil wars and invading Egypt in 1956. Examples of war crimes by British troops are easy to find within Ireland too. The Irish War of Independence saw widespread torture, reprisals against civilians and extrajudicial killings not only by the paramilitary Black and Tans or Auxillaries but by regular British regiments. More recently we see many examples of such practices in Northern Ireland with none of the soldiers who committed murder in the Bogside in 1972 ever being brought to justice for their crimes. Many other such instances can be found with eleven civilians being killed in West Belfast six months previously, possibly by the same paratroopers. Given this context, its easy to see why James McClean should not wish to wear a poppy.
The problem with the poppy goes beyond these past crimes however. It not only acts as a legitimization of past colonial violence but also provides legitimization to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died as a result of western invasions in these two countries. In addition to direct deaths brought about by US and UK military forces, the invasion of Iraq ignited civil war between the countries Shia and Sunni populations. While I have little doubt that many British people believe that wearing a poppy merely pays remembrance to those killed in the conflict and does not condone the invasion which placed British troops in harms way, this ignores the wider picture. The poppy has come to an endorsement of British militarism and has attracted a fascistic cult following. All too many of its wearers fervently demand that all others should wear it, lest the military be disrespected by its absence. The poppy has come to stand for a ‘support our boys’ attitude but this is not a helpful attitude. Britain does not need to ‘support its boys’ more, as virtually all conflicts in which British troops have historically been involved have been campaigns of murder and plunder. Currently involved in a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan (Its fourth invasion of that nation incidentally) and unwilling to confront the many past war crimes carried out by its soldiers, Britain needs to question attitudes towards military and empire. While I understand the benevolent motives of many British people in wearing poppies, I view them as being symbolic of widespread ignorance and denial towards the nations past and I do not support the poppy appeal.