Politics of the poppy


Poppy in Poilly, near Reims, France, 2009. Photo by author.

On Remembrance Day, here are my reflections from 2011. (I updated some of the links. Also, as you know, this year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.)

It’s Remembrance Sunday in the UK today. The Queen has laid a wreath at the Cenotaph. In the UK it’s also traditional to purchase a plastic poppy to wear in your lapel.

Why do people do this? As someone said recently, there’s probably as many reasons to display the poppy as there are people who do so. The history of it is given here by the Peace Pledge Union (UK). It’s obviously not an unproblematic symbol, and I like their idea of a white poppy (white for peace).

To display a red poppy is not to be pro-war in today’s context, at least speaking for myself. I do remember as a schoolchild bitterly resenting the peer pressure to buy a poppy from the goody-goodies who came round every year. (There was even a minor class distinction, the rich schoolkids bought one with the leaf cluster.)

However, today I display red poppies having read a little about WWI and the huge loss of life that occurred, and having visited some of the sites in northern France, such as Verdun where the fighting took place. When I display it, I am doing so in an act of remembrance, the “work of mourning.”

Since my work academically has carried me to WWI and WWII, and now to modern intelligence and its links to the military, I often find myself in a relationship with members of the military, for example as students in my class who ask me for letters of reference to enter officer school. (This is beyond the common experience of being asked to clap soldiers in uniform on planes–I’m still waiting to be asked to clap for nurses, teachers and doctors and let them off first). We also have an ROTC at UK, coincidentally right next to the building housing the Geography Department. And as a geographer, it is hard to deny the discipline’s role in the military-academic complex.

I resolve this, at least for now, by neither seeking out nor ignoring those in uniform on a personal level (trying to treat them the same–this means not clapping them on planes until we also clap others who serve such as school teachers).

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