Poppy Day Is the Opium of the People
Penny, Laurie, New Statesman (1996)
On a rainy Thursday in Cheshire at a site belonging to Europe's largest arms dealer, veterans laid down paper poppies in memory of fallen soldiers. This was no protest, however: BAE Systems, a prominent supporter of the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal, was cheerfully hosting the solemn ceremony at its Radway Green facility.
Officials from the arms and munitions company, which makes billions from global wars and is subsidised by the British government, watched as servicemen and schoolchildren planted crosses in front of the base. Their presence passed unnoticed in a country that seems to have misunderstood the nature of remembrance.
It might sound a little disrespectful to describe Remembrance Sunday and the rash of poppies that precedes it as "just show business", but that is precisely how Harry Patch, the final survivor from the trenches of the 1914-18 war, characterised the ceremonies in his memoir, The Last Fighting Tommy. Patch died last year at the age of 111; there is nobody to recall the full, brutal futility of the war that sustains our patriotic imagination.
Remembrance Sunday now commemorates all fallen British servicemen and women, but it's no wonder the events of the day focus on the two world wars. British children are raised on the mythology of those wars, in part because -particularly in the Second World War--there were clear moral and practical reasons why conflict was unavoidable, and, more to the point, we won. Neither applies to the desert wars that currently provide BAE with a healthy market for its wares.
There are good reasons to donate to the Royal British Legion, especially with government support for veterans so constipated, but poppy-wearing, especially by public officials, is tainted with hypocrisy. The poppy was chosen as a soft symbol of the horrors of war by a generation for which the memories were all too immediate; so, it should be doubly offensive that almost a century later our leaders wear poppies while sending young people to fight and die for causes they barely comprehend. …