The red poppy was chosen as a symbol of remembrance for those who lost their lives in time of war because the flower managed to blossom and survive through the human carnage on the Western Front in the First World War.
As a child, I remember poppies being sold in my primary school and we were all given money by our parents to buy one. It was explained to us that we should be proud to wear the poppy because it was an outward sign that we recognised and remembered those who paid the ultimate price to ensure our freedom.
This belief in the red poppy as a public mark of remembrance persists for many people, but in recent years there has been a blurring of the difference between respect for the fallen and general support for Britain and the British military.
Right-wing politicians, newspapers and pressure-groups erroneously portray as a traitor anyone who criticises jingoistic, British military action - such as the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq – and, by extension, anyone who chooses not to wear the red poppy: the standard criticism is that we disrespect those who gave their lives. Actually, I have great respect for those who went off to war in 1914 and 1939: to disrespect them would be ridiculous.
In 1914, men queued to ‘take the King’s shilling’ and march-off to ‘defend’ their country. In reality, though, most were not fighting for a monarch or for a piece of land; the motivation lay closer to home. Young men were persuaded to fight in order to ‘defend’ their wives and children whom, government propaganda claimed, were at risk from marauding German maniacs: newspapers at the time carried stories of Belgian babies being bayoneted by German soldiers. The stories were untrue.
The real reason the First World War took place was the pursuit of money. Capitalists in Britain sought to further expand the British Empire, through which the ruling elite could exploit more foreign people and lands, thereby increasing their already-obscene levels of wealth. German capitalists had the same idea for their own empire and bank-balances, but there were only so many foreigners that could be exploited. One of the European empire-builders had to see-off the other. This resulted in the working-class of Britain being pitched into mortal combat with the working-class of Germany, in order that financially-cosseted capitalists, safe at home, could maximise their profits. In a situation unchanged since medieval times, ordinary men were to fight and kill each other at the behest of their lords and masters. One unattributed comment perfectly summed-up the reality of the First World War when it described the close-quarter use of the bayonet fixed to a rifle in the following terms: “A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end.”
Any true commemoration of the First World War should tell the story of so many lives destroyed – on both sides – working class men sent to kill other working class men, while capitalist arms-producers on both sides amassed personal fortunes running into millions-of-pounds.
Those men who marched off to war deserve our remembrance and eternal thanks for their bravery. The callous, greedy capitalists and politicians of the British Empire who sent them to war are another matter.
Today’s blurring of remembrance with support for Britain and the British military tarnishes the red poppy.
The Second World War was a conflict that had to be fought to end the global ambitions of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Again, however, while many would have been motivated to fight and defeat fascism, most men went to war to ‘defend’ their wives and children. This time there really was a chance that an invading Nazi army could have posed a mortal threat.
The reality, though, is that the Second World War could have been avoided.
The rise of Hitler’s far-right Nazi party had its foundations in the crippling reparations imposed on Germany by the Allies at the end of the First World War. The point of the reparations was to end Germany’s ability to challenge the rule of British capitalism: the outcome was to plunge ordinary Germans into severe poverty. Hitler’s initial attraction to the people of Germany – he was democratically-elected as Chancellor – stemmed from his appeal to rebuild German pride and commerce by challenging the economic and military restrictions imposed, mainly by Britain, in 1919.
While fascism had to be defeated, the reasons for the rise of the philosophy need to be acknowledged: it was the pursuit of dominance by already-wealthy British capitalists that allowed the seed of extremism to be planted in the minds of the impoverished German working-class.
The men who marched-off to the Second World War deserve our remembrance and eternal thanks for their bravery, but, again, they were sent into a conflict caused, in large part, by callous, greedy, right-wing capitalists and politicians whose present-day equivalents are the very people demanding we show our respect by wearing a red poppy.
That said, opposition to the blurring between remembrance of the fallen and support for Britain and the British military is most obvious in more recent events.
Many Irish men and women living in the six-counties still under British control have good reason to feel aggrieved towards members of the British army and those who sent them onto the streets of their communities. In just two Catholic areas – Ballymurphy in Belfast and the Bogside in Derry – British soldiers of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, shot a total of 39 unarmed civilians, killing 25 local residents. The Belfast killings took place over a three-day period in August 1971. Five months later, in January 1972, British soldiers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration through Derry. The protest was against the British Government's implementation of 'internment' (imprisonment without trial).
So, while many Irishmen fought in British forces during the two World Wars, large numbers of people in the six-counties will not wear a red poppy because of the blurring that places remembrance of the fallen with support for the British military and politicians.
Sadly, in contemporary Scotland, there is evidence to show sectarian, anti-Catholic organisations have attempted to take-over remembrance parades in many towns.
Of course, we are also asked to remember British services personnel who lost their lives fighting in conflicts since the end of the Second World War, including Iraq, an illegal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation.
In Iraq, young Scots were sent to kill or be killed in an immoral, illegal, imperialist American war and, again, the remembrance of those who lost their lives has become blurred with general support for Britain, the British military and morally-corrupt politicians.
I do not wear a red poppy because I don’t want it to be thought that I endorse the right-wing, militaristic agenda of successive British governments. This does not stop me from remembering and respecting the men and women who gave their lives fighting in wars over which they had no control.
Every year I attend the remembrance service at the local War Memorial. Every year I am struck by how few people actually attend. It appears many of those who criticise me for not wearing a red poppy would rather spend their Sunday morning in bed.
Those who have deliberately appropriated the red poppy to represent a symbol of Britishness, rather than exclusively of remembrance, should be ashamed.