Sunday 8 November, Veterans For Peace UK walked to the Cenotaph for the third year in a row. The sole opposing military voice to the clamour of jingoism that has overtaken what was once, rightly, a solemn occasion. This year we were led by women veterans from the US and UK − a fact of which we are all particularly proud. They bore our group’s colours, which are emblazoned with a call for peace, and lay a wreath of white poppies to remember all the war dead, rather than just one section of the slain.
In the last decade, against the background of failed and illegitimate wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the meaning and value of the red poppy has become debated furiously in Britain.
“At the cenotaph on Sunday […], arms dealers, hawks and warmongers stand shoulder to shoulder as if to lament the deaths and injuries their actions inflict.” In one sense, this is a good thing, because those who have now taken ownership of it − arms companies, the gutter press, unbloodied battalions of long-range patriots in parliament − must be challenged.
In Veterans For Peace UK, we have ourselves debated the poppy many times and a multitude views have emerged.
For our older generation of veterans, such as those who saw action on D-Day and in Malaya, men whose fathers were in the trenches of the Great War, the red poppy is still the symbol of insurgent anger and grief that it was at the start. Some of these men combine red and white poppies.
For many of the veterans of the 1980s, 1990s and, like myself, the 9/11 wars, the red poppy has fallen to the enemy − the aforementioned hawks and death-dealers − and is at best a deeply concerning symbol. Many of these veterans wear only the white poppy.
For years, I have worn neither white nor red, though I am increasingly drawn toward the anti-imperialist black poppy, which recalls the war dead of all sides, slaughtered civilian and the endless list of military objectors, rebels and mutineers.
All this aside, and in contrast to many military-oriented organisations at this time of year, Veterans For Peace do not preach about what poppy to wear, or if people should wear one at all. We honour the war dead by trying to limit their numbers, and we do that by putting the view, as women and men who have come to the cause of peace through military conflict, that war is not the answer to the problems of the 21st century.
Veterans For Peace, which is now hundreds strong, has always encapsulated a broad range of opinions and politics, as it should. Increasingly mine is that, while an important argument to have, the fight for the poppy is a row over a symbol. The fight for a future without the scourge of war is also partly the fight against militarism.
By that I mean the promotion of military values, the framing of the military as somehow noble and heroic and the priming and grooming of our population for wars to come, often by rewriting current and past conflicts. And militarism has been increased many-fold in recent years.
From The Sun’s ‘Millies’ military awards and greater number of soldiers in uniform at sporting events, to the rise of very successful charities with a militarist tinge, like Help For Heroes, we are bombarded with a narrow, cultish, one-sided view of what the military is and what it does. To question this narrative is now a kind of apostasy.
One recent example is that of George Evans, a veteran in his nineties, who fought through Normandy. He was prevented from reading out a peace poem at his local cenotaph ceremony, which he had done in previous years. A Royal British Legion representative said this was because George would not stick to the script. This is one individual example of a broader trend.
The militarisation also involves targeting children and young people, for example by increasing the number of military cadet forces. Military values are also promoted as positive on a local level too, with the new armed forces “community covenant” being rolled out. Framed as an equalising initiative for armed forces personnel, it also, in effect, a programme of grass-roots militarism, the beating ideological heart of which is prizing the warrior over all others.
Our answer, as veterans who are tired of our name and our legacy being taken in vain and who reject militarisation, is to challenge the steady indoctrination of society.
That is why we marched to the cenotaph on Sunday, into what has become the dark heart of British militarism. Where arms dealers, hawks and warmongers stand shoulder to shoulder as if to lament the deaths and injuries their actions inflict.
And we will be there every year until our aims are achieved. Not to cause a scene, not to be contrary, but as a matter of duty to the generations who will follow.
Joe Glenton was a British soldier for six years, serving in Afghanistan, whose book Soldier Box was published in 2013. Follow him on Twitter at: @joejglenton
Thank you for being so brave, thank you telling how it is. Never again: the two most important words at any memorial service.
As I currently live in the US (but contemplate returning to UK) I watched the recent RBL Festival of Remembrance courtesy of a YouTube down load. these events used to fill me with nationalist pride and utter respect for the military
s function in the protection of the UK. This year, however, and after having left my 20 year RAF career behind in 2006, I watched with mixed feelings and an overwhelming sadness. Our recent wars, the9/11
wars, orthe dying days of the oil age and energy security and protection of the US dollar as the global reserve currency wars
marked a turning point for me when I seriously questioned just what the UK was doing aligning itself with such ultra right wing and highly questionable people as were in the Bush regime that came to power illegally in 2001. I have never really felt the same since and I firmly believe 9/11 could not have happened as reported I also believe we are in a geopolitical battle to secure a dwindling energy resource in the face of growing competition for them., I was very moved, at the recent FoR by the young man that grew up in foster care, joined the army and lost his sight whilst in theatre. .Was it worth it, he must have asked himself......and I cant think that the question is a rhetorical one.
Truly a worthy remembrance. So honored to have participated.
Thank you to the veterans and supporters for your dignified display of honesty and courage.
I regret that i was unable to attend in person this year to offer support, but i am buoyed to see the greatly increased number of veterans and supporters who did so.
Given the increased presence by VfP-uk and their international associates, i was troubled by your treatment by those with official organisational and stewarding duties, namely the Metropolitan Police [from the video above at 4:00 mins approx
“The police reneged on the agreement to allow Vetrans for Peace to lay their own wreath despite being allowed to for the past two years”].
Furthermore the ‘unsypathetic’ scheduling/timing of your access to the Cenotaph, which appears to be a form of ‘dirty trick’ to equate your presence to that of the various civilians and tourists present.
This was a glaringly apparent in comparison to the previous year 2014 (the centenary of the beginning of the slaughter that we know as World War One)
when such under-hand behaviour by ‘authorities’ may have proved contentious.
(Veterans for Peace mark Rememberance Day 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t34dnIabsGw )
“War is not the solution to the problems of the 21st century.”
Wonderfully expressed! I myself believe in the UN, and as such have a number of suggestions to propose here. Firslty: That we honour the blood spilt by our own fallen comrades through the reclaiming of the ‘red’ poppy narrative. This can be done by the retelling of its ‘story’. We would be amongst those trying to be true to it who are currently lost in the mallei of their regiments, units, and the emergent RBL ‘patriotic heroism of killing celebrations’.
Secondly: That we also tell the story of warriors for peace. This can be done through the wearing of a white flower to the lead in to the UN annual day of ‘Peace’. A march can be organised but suggest it be to UK and home nations centres of political power. This is a way to demonstrate that it is okay to be a veteran and still support peace by reminding our ‘elected politicians/leaders’ and our nations of the value it holds each year. That, as veterans, we more than many, see the importance it holds.
Thirdly: That we identify a flower that can represent the non combatants – babies, children, women and men, that have suffered through conflict, on both sides; and a day to remember them. A march in their memory to the stock exchanges.
thanks read the article and i have to agree on a good part of what you said, but it is still an important event to a lot of people as a sense of pride and saying hello again to friends that have died ( i know it is a sad day for me but also remember the happy times) but i agree about the government and the munition ceo’s ect
Kudo to our brethren in the UK, great show of solidarity and respect with soldiers everywhere. My chapter here in the states is Chapter 15, Gainesville, Fl. And I would love to host any member who would like to visit and attend a meeting or go to our annual fundraiser the Winter Solstice Celebration, great music and comraderie.
Great article – really thoughtful and thought-provoking. Completely agree about the significance of the VFP event at the Cenotaph – really powerful and moving, and for me the most important event in the peace calendar.
Also interested in what you say about the fight for the poppy being “a row over a symbol”. I wonder if this discussion about the poppy, or ‘which’ poppy to wear, can become a distraction – like you, I don’t wear any poppies and wonder why we need something visual. It’s very hard to co-opt silence. And more significant than the poppy is surely what lies behind it – the growth of militarisation and the idea of the military as something “noble and heroic”.
Great to see so many people at the event yesterday. Hope it becomes the main focus for remembrance – both remembering the past and as you powerfully say at the end, recreating the future.
Thanks for sharing a great article. When the holiday name of November 11 changed in the US from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, the images conveyed in the mind radically shifted from ending war to perpetuating war. This will prove to be fatal for humans and most life on the planet.
Superbly put. Very significant that the symbol of war remembrance in this country is a flower which produces a drug . . .
The symbol of the red poppy comes from the delicate, vibrant flower that bloomed in the fields of Flanders in WW1. It resembles the huge amount of blood that was spilled, pointlessly, by the soldiers who lost their lives there. It has absolutely nothing to do with the different poppy that produces heroin in lands far from Belgium and any comparison is unhelpful and inaccurate.
I was warmly welcomed by you, proud to join you and was heartened by the applause you received. I learned that day that among the sponsor’s of the British Legion are 2 huge arms companies. Lockheed Martin is the one I can recall.
we are assailed by the murdochised (used to be especially Northcliffe-ised) media pushing the sometimes unsubtle message that any critics of the RBL’s clear association of the WW veterans (very largely conscripts) with the present-day military, who are “just doing a job” are traitorous.
The RBL has , in short, betrayed the WW vets,and put its hand in with the arms-dealers and other low-life warmongers. Good to have Joe Glenton emphasise this aspect .
It would seem to me that the white poppy is positive, but, above all, I would hope VFP supporters would observe the minute’s silence at 11.00 on 11/11, as it was meant to be, before being high-jacked by the Establishment and monarchised as well as militarised, along with the red poppy.
The essential bit about “charities”, of course, is that the toffs and their hangers-on who promote war through their State as well as through the media ought to pay through their State for the rehabilitation and re-settlement of ex-service personnel, rather like medical research and, especially, essential social,services for the people.
What an excellent, thoughtful article. Thank you so much!
Great article Joe and the accompanying video is powerful. I agree, it is increasingly important that your voices are heard.
It seems that the original meaning of Armistice Day has been lost on both sides of the pond: as we look back to remember those who have sacrificed and suffered in war, let’s look ahead to find peaceful alternatives to resolve conflicts.
Truly superb work.
Excellent article. Well done Joe for writing the article and to all at VfP for the Cenotaph ceremony on Sunday.
Proud to walk in the wake of these courageous men and women. We will always endeavour to be there with you.
Angela & John Kenny
I’ve never heard of the Black poppy before, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m a little confused though as the description of what it stands for sounds to me what I thought the White poppy stood for. Can you highlight the difference between the symbols/poppies for me please?
Thank you to everyone who turned up yesterday. 40 veterans from the UK, USA and Germany ranging in experience from D-Day through to Lybia with well over 100 supporters following us to The Cenotaph.
Thank you for writing this; I was there in a support capacity. I have never heard of the black poppy, but this seems like an ideal way to remember all the dead.
Many thanks for you continued principled stand.