Red poppies and Leagues of Nations

My friend Richard Jackson has a very thoughtful post explaining why he wears a white rather than red poppy. 

By excluding the non-military victims of war from remembrance, the red poppy upholds a moral hierarchy of worthy and unworthy victims: the heroic soldier who is worthy of respect and official commemoration, and the unworthy, unnamed civilians killed or maimed by the heroic soldier who remains unacknowledged and unremembered. This validation of those who wage war and the moral hierarchy of victims is a central part of the cultural architecture which upholds the continuing institution of war in our society. It is a central part of what makes war possible.

This stuck in my mind and like all good critical scholarship it has made me question my actions and specifically why the red poppy decorates my coat.  I am wearing the red poppy today because of something I heard this morning and something I read last night. 

The first of these was the opinion expressed by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, on Radio 4’s Thought for Day.  He noted that the idea for the 2 minute silence came from an Australian soldier and journalist, and then a South African, who disliked the partying and merrymaking that  greeted Armistice Day. ‘For victorious nations to remain silent’, the Bishop noted, ‘is a sought of victory itself … a victory for shared compassion’.  #

The Bishop was talking about the observance of silence rather than the red poppy but the two go together and in this sense I disagree with Richard’s conclusion that remembrance day acts ‘to hide the truth and obscure reality’.  And if I think about it further, I didn’t need the Bishop of Norwich tell me that.  He articulated what was always the ‘common sense’ of my childhood, which was spent not too far from what is now the National Arboretum in Staffordshire.  War is an immense waste and we should do everything we can to avoid it.

I also got this sense from Arthur Henderson’s 1918 pamphlet “Labour and the League of Nations”, which I read last night as part of my project on international law and centre-left foreign policies.  Henderson was Labour’s war time leader.  The lesson he took from WWI was that war was a threat to civilization and it had to be rejected as a means of politics and as an expression of national identity.  War was also a threat to domestic reform programmes and for that reason it had to be rejected, rather than embraced, by those who wanted to promote democracy. But Henderson knew, as I did in my Staffordshire village, that this was not always the lesson that the working class drew from war.  The progressive insistence of “peace without victory” could easily be lost to jingoistic narratives that celebrated national superiority.  It was to counter that narrative that Labour supported the League of Nations.    As Henderson put it    

In Labour’s view, the ultimate purpose of such a League is to create a common mind in the world, to make the nations conscious of the solidarity of their interests, and to enable them to perceive that the world is one, and not a number of separate countries divided by artificial frontiers.


I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess that Henderson wore the red poppy for these reasons.  It recognises the sacrifices all soldiers make and the injustices that some (particularly conscripts) suffer, but it does not celebrate their ‘victories’.  

Richard is right to remind us that when we wear the red poppy we should never forget the civilian casualties in war.  But the two are not mutually exclusive.  Recalling what is, occasionally, the tragic fate of the individual soldier does not mean we care less about civilians.  Civilians, I’d argue, are much better protected by a categorical insistence that soldiers are held accountable to international humanitarian law. If the red poppy in any way excused and celebrated the politician that took us into an unjust war, or if it in any way excused and celebrated the soldier that committed war crimes, then I would refuse to wear it.  But it does not do that; nor should it ever be allowed to do that.


For me the red poppy commemorates loss. It does not, and it should not, reinforce moral or national hierarchies.  It reminds us of the waste of war and it does not glorify violence.  It exposes as utopian the ‘realist’ idea that military superiority will lead to peace and it reinforces the progressive insistence that there must be another way. That’s why the red poppy is on my coat today.

Having said that I do recognise Richard’s concerns.  I guess ultimately I’ve made the decision that it is more significant to restore, revive, defend, explain (take your pick) the cosmopolitan meaning of the red poppy rather than to give up on it.  There are after all dangers in letting such a potent symbol slip into the hands of those who would happily use it to promote the kind of moral and national hierarchies that Richard and myself oppose.


About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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2 Responses to Red poppies and Leagues of Nations

  1. Thanks for this, Jason. I suppose ideally we should wear both red and white poppies. I also listened to the Bishop of Norwich and was impressed by the originality and power of the idea of victorious nations remaining silent. I couldn’t help comparing this to the triumphalism at the recent deaths of Bin Laden and Gaddafi, which I found profoundly shocking. The death of any human being is a source of sadness, whatever they may have done in their lives. As Walt Whitman had it: “my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead” (in his poem: “Reconciliation”).

  2. Jason Ralph says:

    Thanks Mike. In fact Richard’s FB page has a white poppy alongside the red one so maybe you’re right. I blogged my disappointment at the way Cameron greeted Gaddafi’s death and the same applies to the triumphalism surrounding Bin Laden’s death. Silence in these situations would have been appropriate and powerful. There is another side to the remembrance day silence though. As Richard’s latest post (“We will remember them…”) reminds us, the silence is sometimes broken by a list of names a community is asked to remember; yet too often the silence continues when it comes to considering the names of everyone killed in the war. This has to change and the links Richard provides are important.

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