Poppy populism obscures the facts of British military history


A year ago my son’s class teacher told the class that wearing a poppy in November was to remember all those who have died in war – soldiers and civilians, writes Abdul Wahid.

A brief look at the website of the Royal British Legion, who organize the annual poppy appeal, tells a different story. It clearly states that the poppy appeal goes to “help serving members of the Armed Forces, ex-Service men and women and their families, now and for the rest of their lives.

That maybe fine for someone who consciously wants to donate for this reason – but it means the message that is pumped out at schools every year is inaccurate. Everyone in the public eye is expected to wear one – a phenomenon labeled poppy fascism” by Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow.

One writer who was honest enough to say why he would not wear a poppy, had comments below his article including emotionally charged statements like “Shame on you…Your right to criticise the institutions of this country were bought with the blood of thousands of British, Commonwealth and American servicemen! The Poppy is a symbol of their sacrifice! Shame, Shame on you…!”.

Others repeated the myth that “It’s simply to remember the fallen of all wars so why not wear one” – whilst many expressed their personal reasons for wearing a poppy, for example: “I marched against the first and second Iraq wars. I have campaigned for peace in many venues at many times. I wear a poppy to remember my grandfather, a frightened boy pretending to be a man in the cauldron of the First World War, one of the most senseless wastes of human life in recent history. I don’t find the two things to be in conflict.”

I have no issue with those who have personal family reasons for wearing their poppies. I won’t be encouraging anyone to burn or disrespect a poppy, but I will encourage people not to become intellectually inert over this issue, and to be bullied into silence by the oppressive climate that has been created to manipulate of popular feeling so as to distract people from looking at the causes for the wars Britain has engaged in – past and present – and to obscure the question of whether or not these people sacrificed their lives for us – as Prime Minister Cameron says.

First World War

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Cameron has said he wants a centenary commemoration of World War One next year. World War One was a colonial war that had more to do with the dominance of empires over each other than with protecting the security of people in Britain. There were an estimated ten million combatants killed, with double the number of injured. Most of them like the aforementioned “frightened boy pretending to be a man.”

It was the war that spawned the Sykes-Picot accord, dismembering the Muslim world into weak, vassal states, which gave birth to the rule of the House of Saud, the royal family of Jordan and others that were later overthrown by military nationalist dictators – who the populations are only now sweeping away.

It was the war in which Lord Balfour gave his infamous declaration promising to cede away land, over which Britain had no legal mandate, to people who did not live there.

David Cameron wants to commemorate WW1
David Cameron wants to commemorate WW1

Just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, lies were fed to the population, and to their armed forces, to justify military conflict for dubious ends.

The annual Remembrance Day events obliterates all consideration of this side of history.

Whilst it is said by the Royal British Legion, in their template assembly for schools, that “Remembrance Day is a day of reflection” allowing people “to remember or think about all those people who are affected by wars, both in the past and now. It allows us to think about all those people who suffer in wars all around the world. And it reminds us how important it is to work for peace” – this is sadly untrue.

It is almost solely about remembering Britain’s war dead and their families – and more recently those soldiers who have been injured in combat.

You will never find anyone remembering, mourning or grieving for others killed in these conflicts – whether combatants from the opposing sides or civilians killed in collateral damage.

Iraq and Afghanistan

This is especially troubling for Muslims living in the UK. The British state – supported across all sides of the political divide but opposed by huge sections of the population – chose to invade two Muslim countries – Afghanistan and Iraq – within the space of 2 years. The consequent damage in terms of those directly killed and injured by the conflict, as well as those harmed by the damage to infrastructure and the destabilisation of the region, is enormous.

No one actually gathers accurate statistics about this – which is itself an indictment on those responsible. The website IraqBodyCount.org says that in Iraq alone there have been between 109,663 – 119,812 documented civilians killed in the violence: death of genocidal proportions. Other estimates that include deaths from disease and troop related deaths, puts the numbers five to ten times higher.

This is aside from civilians abused by troops, most infamously highlighted by the murder of Baha Moussa whilst in the custody of British troops. No one will be wearing a poppy for Baha Moussa – or for any others killed in these conflicts. Nor for Muslims who fought against Britain and were killed in World War One. The Ottoman state was a global power which as the seat of the Caliphate was the figurehead leadership for Muslims in the world.

The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003
The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003

The Ottoman Sultan had tried to stay out of the conflict between Britain and Germany. Yet Britain, more than any other state, was determined to drag it in. The subsequent occupation then division of Arab lands, “Sykes-Picot” and the Balfour declaration all laid the seeds for decades long conflicts that followed.

Despite that shameful history, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond has the audacity to say that Britain and Europe should be “prepared, if necessary, to take a bigger role in relation to North Africa and the Middle East.”

I will not be wearing a poppy this November. I cannot wear a badge that remembers the troops sent to a meaningless death by aggressor regime, over the victims of that aggression – especially when the victim is my sister, my brother, my father and my mother.

As well as whitewashing historical and contemporary truths about Britain’s wars, the huge focus on the poppy – and talk of a national commemoration of the First World War – politicians’ attempt to generate some much-needed patriotic sentiments in British society – like the Jubilee celebrations, Royal Wedding and 2012 Olympics – against the background of pessimism and austerity,

But patriotism – which thrives on the feeling that people are united because of some existential threat – is a very weak, temporary and shallow basis upon which to unify people.

It is a deeply dishonest exercise. The First World War poet Wilfred Owen wrote: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” or  “How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country” – except they are not dying for their country. Even if one shared this sentiment, the tragedy is that they kill and are killed for the sake of oil companies, defence contractors and firms involved in reconstruction.

I mean no disrespect to those who have sincere memories of their family members killed or injured in war. But the more that people simply capitulate to this deeply political campaign by the politicians to promote Poppy day, the less they will scrutinize those who are pushing this agenda from Whitehall.


Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine.

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