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Monday, 18 October 2010

The White Poppy: Remembering all war deaths and challenging the culture of violence

On November Remembrance Sunday and the weeks leading up to it we will see the proliferation of Red Poppies, people wearing them in the lapels and what seems almost like the compulsory display of red poppies by TV presenters. The red poppy, distributed and promoted by the British Legion has become the dominant way in which people in the UK remember that who gave their lives in war (both world wars and other conflicts including the current ones in Iraq and Afghanistan).

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) is according to its website, the oldest secular pacifist organisation in the UK and each year at this time promotes the wearing and public display of the White Poppy as an alternative or in addition to the Red Poppy. The origins of the White Poppy campaign can be traced to the aftermath of the First World War, there was discussion about the link between the commemoration of those who gave their lives in that war and the ways in which that commemoration promoted and sustained a ‘culture of war’.

Thus the idea of decoupling Armistice Day, the red poppy and later Remembrance Day from their military culture dates back to 1926, just a few years after the British Legion was persuaded to try using the red poppy as a fundraising tool in Britain. A member of the ‘No More War Movement’ suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppies instead of ‘Haig Fund’ and failing this pacifists and others who rejected war as a means of resolving conflict should make their own flowers.The details of any discussion with the British Legion are unknown but as the centre of the red poppy displayed the ‘Haig Fund’ imprint until 1994 it was clearly not successful. A few years later the idea was again discussed by the Co-operative Women's Guild who in 1933 produced the first white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day (later called Remembrance Day). The Guild stressed that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the women lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers. The following year the newly founded Peace Pledge Union joined the CWG in the distribution of the poppies and later took over their annual promotion.

The key motivations and distinctiveness of the White Poppy from its origins in the mid war period to this day are a) to commentate all war dead (the British Legion’s red poppy campaign only commemorates British war dead) and b) it rejects the military culture which still characterises Remembrance Sunday and to promote instead a culture of peace and challenge war and state-sanctioned violence. Within Northern Ireland and Ireland as a while where thousands of men (and women) have fought and died in the British armed forces since the first world war onwards, the White Poppy also has the advantage of enabling those who cannot support the British Army connotations of the Red Poppy a way to acknowledge and remember those Irish men and women who have died and fought in the British Army.Indeed, while I am a pacifist (but a believer in non-violent direct action if needed) I am drawn to wearing the White Poppy also as my way of commemorating my grandfather, a Dublin man who joined the British army and fought and was injured fighting in North Africa. In providing this way of commemoration, the White Poppy, finally allows those in the Republic of Ireland or those from the Irish Nationalist community in Northern Ireland, to publicly express and acknowledge those Irish citizens who fought and died while serving in the British armed forces. Up until recently, there was a silence, a shameful silence politically about these men and women, as if from an Irish nationalist perspective one had to ashamed of them. Thankfully this is now changing and one can only think that a wider appreciation and awareness of the White Poppy can help rectify this wrong.

At the same time, the White Poppy campaign in its expression of non-violence also means it has a very real and current relevance in drawing attention to the continuing ‘culture of violence’ which characterises how states (and others) seek to resolve conflicts and tensions. For example, one of the motivations behind the Peace Pledge Union is to highlight the ways in which military spending (at essence improving the capacity to inflict death and injury) takes funding away from life-sustaining efforts to improve human life. The PPU estimates (as of Monday 18th October) that Global Military Spending Since Jan 1, 2010 is approximately $1,065,098,794,869. Against that figure consider the following: Estimated costs to provide the following:

Shelter for every human being $21,000,000,000

Eliminate ALL Starvation and Malnourishment $19,000,000,000

Clean Safe Water for every human being $10,000,000,000

Thus, the White Poppy campaign is a call to question this shameful waste of resources and also to remind us that we should never be fooled (if in these days where talk of public spending cuts and reducing budget deficits serve as blatant propaganda to soften us and prepare us for reductions in the welfare state) that the issue is funding. How is it we can spend hundreds of millions of pounds on an illegal war and occupation of Iraq yet are told there is no money for new hospitals? How can we take seriously the proposition that we can and will spend millions of tax-payers money on upgrading the Trident nuclear missile system yet we cannot subsidise university education so that its available to all, but rather are told we have to allow universities to charge what they like? In this case, the PPU and the White Poppy campaign enable a space to be created where we can look forward to the day when it is an army general rather with a tin can on the main street looking for donations for a new tank, rather than a junior doctor doing the same looking for funding for a dialysis machine. Ultimately, the question is where do we want our taxes to go – on funding better ways to kill or better ways to sustain life?

In many respects what the White Poppy campaign attempts to do is to move Remembrance Sunday celebrations away from a mere commemoration of past conflicts and an exclusive focus on only British servicemen and women, towards an expression of sadness at humans’ inability to resolve their differences in a peaceable way. Wearing the white poppy is an opportunity to reflect on the causes of war not just the inevitable human casualties and should not be seen as an insult to those who choose to wear the Red Poppy. There should be space given to those of us who choose to wear the White Poppy and we should not be made to feel, as I sometimes do at this time of year when I wear the White Poppy, as disrespectful to the memory of those who have died in conflict. The White Poppy, when properly understood and placed within its context, is a more universal and encompassing expression of remembrance within which the wearing of the Red Poppy can be placed.

More information on the White Poppy and the Peace Pledge Union can be found at