Poppies Are The Opiate Of The People

The English Football Association is angry at FIFA again. This time it isn’t because FIFA is a laughable den of corruption but because they won’t let the English soccer team wear poppies on their shirts when they play a meaningless friendly against Spain this weekend.

This reminds me of a time David Cameron, the humanoid robot who co-ordinates the economic cutting machine that is the British government, angrily refused to take off his commemorative poppy while on an official tour to China. He was not going to let some godless Commies tell him what to wear.

Of course, in the eyes of the Chinese, a British man wearing a poppy didn’t make them think of Flanders’ fields but the Opium War. As long practitioners of the peaceful activity that is free market global capitalism, Britain resorted to military action when China tried to block their efforts to flood their nation with opium made from poppies grown in India. It was of course illegal in Britain. But like almost all globalised capitalist scenarios, the commodity existed so a market had to be created. Britain offloaded 900 tons of the narcotic in 1820, 1,400 by 1838. The Chinese had to settle at the end of three years of conflict in 1842 with the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing. Britain took Hong Kong and subjugated China to its imperial trading agenda. Other western powers rushed in and a period that the Chinese call the Century of Humiliation began.

That is a useful chapter of history to keep in mind when we consider the growing British tendency to wear a poppy in November to remember the war dead.

Symbols are rarely universal. While their adaptation over time cannot be predicted, that doesn’t for a moment suggest that their development is mere coincidence. The poppy is not just a way to remember those who should be remembered. It is a very intentional attempt to solidly situate certain values at the centre of British discourse and exclude others.

Now why am I writing about poppies. I am an Irish man living in Dublin. What right have I to share an opinion? Well first of all, 50,000 Irish volunteers died in World War I. Secondly, I work for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and it seems my employer is dedicated to supporting this peculiar little red symbol. In the recent edition of our church magazine, notable for a frankly brilliant letter by Prof. Stephen Williams and a superb article on the experience of members of the LGBT community in Northern Irish churches by my friend Pádraig O’Tuama, you can find two articles about “rememberance” and on the front cover you can see the poppy placed prominently.

Herald Poppy

The poppy became a symbol of remembrance of those who died in the war called “Great” in the 1920’s. It is a long tradition. It seems to stem from a poem written by a soldier named John McCrea in 1915 called In Flander’s Fields. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

One is upset by the sentimental attribution of bravery to larks but the imagery is powerful nonetheless. We can understand why this poem would capture the imagination and lead to this mode of commemoration. But this poem is actually a piece of militaristic propaganda. No Dulce Et Decorum Est here. Read the opening lines of the final stanza:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

It is appropriate that we remember the men who died in World War I. But let us remember them rightly. In the case of the dead of World War I that requires nuanced sensitivity and an unflinching examination of the truth. The 50,000 men who were raised in Ireland and died on the fields of that war were wasted. The remembering that honours their lives is not one that brushes the futility of their deaths to the side. The way to esteem their contribution to Europe is to recognise and clearly declare that they were abandoned by Europe in an insane and uncomprehensibly disgusting sacrifice to the gods of war.

Let us not murder the mankind of their going with a symbol that costs us nothing and that accrues only capital in the accounts of those groups that want us to continue to resort to military “solutions” when problems arise between nations. The television hosts and the bus drivers and the politicians and the clergy who proudly display the poppy may intend only to respect the courage of the men who went to fight. My fight is not with them. It is with the way in which their honest intentions are ill served by a charity run by the British army that encourages this mass display of a military mythology that dishonours the reality of the waste that was 1914-1918 and occludes the waste that continues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This issue of remembering rightly is especially critical for those of us who follow Jesus, a man we claim is God and was never more clearly so as when he was violently nailed to a tree and hung there to die. He who had cause and capability to use violence chose a different path. So too must we. Even without accepting that the Gospel compels non-violence, the Gospel compels remembering rightly.

Another poppy poem that had a huge influence was written by an American woman called Moina Michael. In We Shall Keep the Faith she tells us:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

There can be no doubt but that she is continuing the violent imagery of McCrea’s poem. Take up the cause against the foe and (this is instructive) keep the faith! The gods of war are jealous. They know that allegiance to that Jesus-God is incompatible with the sacrifices that keep them sated. They demand your faith. To win it, Michael will remind you that “That blood of heroes never dies”. Those who died in Flanders are heroes and if we honour them in faith they need never die. We can undo the carnage with this liturgy of remembrance. In the final paragraph she tells us:

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

They have not died for naught. That at least is true. They died for the nation state, the cause of capital and the delusion of race hatred. There were reasons they lived in those hellish trenches and died among those mine-strewn fields and when we wear the poppy we satisfy ourselves with easy answers that amount to a refusal to mourn. We blaspheme down the stations of the breath with further elegies of innocence and youth. We famish our imaginations, leaving them unable to conceive of God’s Kingdom. We dine out on the ghoulish satisfactions of patriotism, sentimentality and havoc.

We betray the dead and the living.

Your Correspondent, He ain’t no super genius, or are he?

15 Replies to “Poppies Are The Opiate Of The People”

  1. ” when we wear the poppy we satisfy ourselves with easy answers that amount to a refusal to mourn. We blaspheme down the stations of the breath with further elegies of innocence and youth. We famish our imaginations, leaving them unable to conceive of God’s Kingdom. We dine out on the ghoulish satisfactions of patriotism, sentimentality and havoc.”

    Sorry. Kev, as an Irish nationalist, I wear it to remember. Simple; and having read your article you have done little to convince me I shouldn’t.

    By all means tell me why you don’t wear it – but don’t presume to tell me why I wear it.

    PS Having said that I’m with FIFA and not the English FA but that’s a different story

    PPS Do you wear the shamrock on 17/3, or does that not count as a political symbol?

    Your poppy wearing, shamrock wearing, Etihad shirt wearing, non-collar-wearing correspondent

  2. I don’t see the poppy as a problem because it is British. My issue with the Herald emblazoning the cover with the poppy isn’t some “feckin’ unionists!” objection. My problem is with the continued militarisation.

    If we are remembering these wars as anything but a horrendous travesty, then we are not doing justice to the men who died.

    I have no idea if I wear shamrock on March 17. I also don’t know what relevance that has to the conversation. To the best of my knowledge, we aren’t using shamrock as a symbolic grammar for soldiers being squandered on needless wars.

    Finally, I have no idea where you think I have told you why you wear it. If I have hinted at all in that direction it was actually to grant that the average poppy wearer “intend(s) only to respect the courage of the men who went to fight.”

  3. A thunderously good read. I’ve spent all but a year of my life living within walking distance of Glasnevin cemetery. It’s a fascinating place, to my knowledge the first secular cemetery in this nation and a treasure trove of history. Earlier this year I managed to find the final resting place of an aunt who’d died shortly after birth – the information had been lost for half a century. It was a very moving time and I commend the trust’s helpful staff and volunteers.

    You may wonder at the relevance. It has a sizeable section dedicated to Irish war dead from WWI and WWII. Many had lain in unmarked and unremembered graves for decades. Over the last two years Glasnevin Trust and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have been erecting headstones for Irish servicemen and women, researching their past and contacting surviving relatives. Tomorrow, at 3pm, there’ll be a rededication of war memorials in the cemetery.

    It’s interesting to note that there are more names on the memorials than there are graves. This is in part because fighting for the British was often frowned on and it was not uncommon for volunteers to give a false name for fear of reprisal against themselves or their families. Our war dead are certainly fewer in number than those of other countries, and steady pay was of course a motive for some, but we can say that they were all volunteers and did not enlist against a backdrop of a war-supporting society.

    There still exists some prejudice against these soldiers. I know I get strange looks and unsupportive comments while wearing a poppy – and I’ve yet to wear it for a full day. I think we can recognise the futility and waste of the world wars while still wishing to commemorate those lost. I also like to think that some day we’ll have progressed enough as an Irish society to hold opinions of our soldiers that are unrelated to the fact that they wore British garb.

    I don’t really think we’re at odds here, so far I’m just trying to add a little local flair. As I’ve said I enjoyed the piece. There is one bone of contention:

    “Let us not murder the mankind of their going with a symbol that costs us nothing and that accrues only capital in the accounts of those groups that want us to continue to resort to military “solutions” when problems arise between nations.”

    Mine cost two Euro. This might seem pedantic, even for me, but it’s worth seeing where that money goes: http://www.poppy.org.uk/make-a-difference/where-your-money-goes

    The RBL campaigns hard to provide better support for disabled soldiers, ensuring access to employment and appropriate care and compensation. After World War two, many disabled servicemen were confined to homes out of the public eye, a move that helped keep support for war high. The RBL makes wars more costly by making the government do a better job of compensating injured veterans. It changes public perception of the cost of war by integrating disabled and injured soldiers into regular society. They raise awareness of what actually happens to soldiers, as opposed to Hollywood ideals: http://www.poppy.org.uk/make-a-difference/people-we've-helped/

    If everyone knew such a soldier and what they’d sacrificed, I doubt the appetite for war would be as high.

  4. My opening quote from your original post seemed to be telling me why I (and anyone else) wore it.

    Where I grew up “the wearing of the green” was seen- at least in part- as a commemoration of dead Irish freedom fighters. That was stupid- but it was as real a perception as the stupid association of the poppy with Britishness.

    I am happy to wear the poppy as a memorial of the horrors of war- ‘Lest we forget’ should mean remembering all wasted lives. However we can’t get away from the fact that had not WW2 taken place there is the distinct possibiiity we would all have been born into a fascist dictatorship, where I’m sure you would have been only too happy to show your pacifistic non-violent opposition by the wearing of some protest symbol- a flower, perhaps.

    The poppy reminds me of the waste of my maternal great uncle who died in WW1 – my paternal uncle who died in WW2 and a second cousin who was blown to bits by the IRA while quietly policing his neighbourhood, I wear it to remember- to mourn the loss of all life in war. Call me naive- but don’t call me militaristic

  5. I haven’t called you militaristic Monty. I think I have been very clear, as evidenced by a direct quote from the one place in the text where I spoke about motivation of the wearers, that the intentions are honourable and ones that I share.

    I intended to demarcate the individual wearing the poppy from the larger issues of remilitarisation that the poppy as a symbol (both in its origins and its role in culture today) represents. Re-reading what I have written I think that demarcation is made very clear.

    Geoff: 3 points.

    Firstly, I feel a need to restate the baseline from my theological position here: Christian non-violence is not a means to end war. It is not a reaction to the carnage of battle that takes the form of an idealistic and passive throwing up of the hands and saying “I’ll not have anything to do with that!” Instead it is a response to the fact that I believe the creator, sustainer and redeemer of this world achieved his ends without recourse to violence; hence so should I. My opposition to the poppy is not some arbitrary abstract fight I’ve decided I’ll wage on what is an apparently overall positive tradition, but just one more note in a symphony informed by an imagination utterly different from the one played out in the world.

    Secondly, as ever, your response is surprising, well informed, sensible and good. It is an insightful mind that looks beyond the “poppies raise money” to the deeper political impact of successfully reintegrating mutilated soldiers into society. I completely share your reading of the poppy as a social phenomenon that is not just “charitable” but subversive. But this success behooves us to go deeper and find a way to remember rightly, which is to remember in a way that increases human dignity and reduces human capacity for war.

    Thirdly, I may write about this again sometime after I’ve reacquainted myself with the hard stats but the idea of volunteer needs to be complexified, especially as it relates to people raised in Ireland. The logic of war is intricately tied into the logic of the state and the market. It is an unholy Trinity. In 1914 a very curious interaction occurred between those forces in Ireland and while we should utterly oppose silly nationalistic delusions that these men were “traitors” to Ireland and the similar sillyness that goes on around the poppy, we should also be careful to imagine volunteer means free.

  6. Our four-year-old has been asking me all week for a pound coin to take into school so he can buy one of those “red flowers.” I get a lot of where you’re coming from Kevin, and I feel quite conflicted about the poppy as a symbol.

    But my soft-hearted parenting won out, and I gave Elijah his pound coin today. On the way into school we chatted (along with his big brother) about what the poppy meant. I encouraged them to think of it as a way of remembering all who have died in war, and all who still die in wars today, and the sadness of war, and to pray for an end to war and the coming of peace. Elijah wanted to carefully learn off a few phrases to say to his friends. So I guess he went in as some kind of prophet of peace…

    But maybe I should have encouraged him to overthrow the tables and drive them out with whips?

  7. Caveat: a non-Christian’s attempt at Christian philosophy follows.

    I’m reading the provocatively but incorrectly titled “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart right now. It’s about two weeks with an editor away from being an excellent book, and I’d only make two changes: (1) delete 20% of the text and (2) take a trip in a time machine to steal his thesaurus.

    He writes well on the criticism of Christianity as not explicity condemning slavery in its early days. His memorable counter was that Oedipus never explicitly stated that incest was inappropriate as he plucked his own eyes from their sockets. I’ll give an unfair compression of what anyone who’s spoken to Kevin on the subject already knows (and can likely express better) – the concept of all being equal brothers and sisters in Christ existed before society had the grammar to understand how this jarred with such an integral, fundamental element of their society as slavery. He views moving away from slavery as a slow, sometimes jittery but inexorable result of understanding that equality, and his case seems strong.

    It seems to me that if you wanted an end to war in a Christian way, one manner of achieving it would be to change how we view soldiers, and how soldiers are taught to view themselves. We’re generally told soldiers are courageous, resolved, willing to give their lives if needs be, that their deaths are quick, meaningful and accompanied with dignified grief of proud relatives, and that when they come home they come home whole in body and mind. We used to tell ourselves that the lot of a slave was a generally happy one, free from higher concerns, and that their brutish nature probably meant they would be unable to handle their own affairs without the stewardship of a master. (Frederick Douglass is excellent on the subject.) The comparison is imperfect and rushed but I hope I get some of my message across – I’m not implying soldiers are slaves, rather that we tell (or told) ourselves stories about both groups to ease our consciences. Maybe the truth will make us free.

  8. “…encourages this mass display of a military mythology that dishonours the reality of the waste that was…”. thank you for this great post.

  9. What DEx-H means to say is “Belligerence about war?” which is Greek is “Polemikos eni polemon” so he is being simultaneously perceptive, show-offy and witty. 🙂

  10. Looking back at this article with Erika over my shoulder.. In school today and lots of poppies everywhere. i like the way you have articulated your feelings here but i think i can understand better now Monty’s reaction. Its next to near impossible to separate the wearing of the poppy by those who do so out of remembrance for their loved ones from talking about the poppy as a symbol of continued support for militarism. In fact i would say that what is called for is another symbol. So im hoping that my reading into the white poppy wont throw up any surprises..

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