I wasn’t sure whether I was going to write this piece up to be part of my portfolio. It’s hard to produce political stuff like this as I worry it can come across as cliche. However, on a cold November evening, the seeds of dissent were sewn in my mind and Operation Peace Take was conceived.
I love how my ideas manifest themselves. Small snippets of information about the remembrance commemorations had been steadily seeping into my subconscious, but it was actually a football story that got the proverbial ball rolling. Some footballer was being castigated about not wanting to wear a red poppy because he was Irish and felt that to commemorate what he saw as an occupying force was wrong. This news story resonated with me and made me reflect about what the poppy really represented.
The red poppy is traditionally seen as an emblem of Remembrance Day, their red colour symbolising blood spilled in the first world war. Yet, in the years that have followed, it has come to symbolise a broader remembrance of all armed forces personnel who have laid down their lives in service to their country. 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, official commemoration and national pride, and the unworthy, unnamed civilian who remains faceless and unacknowledged.
The red poppy is intimately tied up with a series of myths about heroic sacrifice and necessary violence perpetuated through sensationalist media propaganda that fuels a naive and ignorant patriotism. The truth is that war is vicious, bloody, inglorious, and that the soldiers we remember are there to kill and maim fellow human beings. The truth is that many of our wars are nothing to do with freedom, liberty, or democracy. They are often illegal, and predatory in their conquest of resources, lobbied by corporations with a vested interest in a perpetual state of war. Images of politicians, and the royal family laying wreaths at the cenotaph to commemorate the slaughter of millions of people, used as fodder to maintain the class privileges which they enjoy, is truly an act of incredible hypocrisy!
People from all over the world had been traveling to London to see the tower poppies exhibition, which saw ceramic poppies fill the moat of the tower of London as a mark of respect to our glorious dead from the ‘great’ war. So, with all this simmering away in my mind, I decided to plant a few huge white poppies at this now world famous tourist attraction. I was cautious about how I was going to tackle this because it was imperative I didn’t come across as as disrespectful. This protest was out of a greater respect for ALL victims of conflict, whilst denouncing the militarism that has forever underpinned British foreign policy, that celebrates a history that ought to be a source of shame, and should be part of a broader sense of national remembrance. How can we expect to solve any of the problems this union and the wider global community faces if we can’t be honest about the incongruities of our national myth as a force for good in the world, as the ‘mother of parliaments’?
I’m not railing against the sacrifices people believed they were making for their country, more arguing for a broader sense of remembrance in the aftermath of empire. The fact that less than a week after the poppies were removed a private dinner was held for all the major players in the British arms trade was disgusting. Platitudes about heroic sacrifice in this context only serve to further demonstrate an institutional and systemic disrespect for life. This is why I advocate the white poppy, as a commitment to peace as a core cultural value.