Why I won’t be wearing a poppy
For those who don’t know : in this time of year, people in the UK buy red poppies and wear these on their clothes, and the money goes to charity helping war veterans.
As a psychologist I have treated many soldiers. Several of my friends are veterans. I have seen the extreme impact that wars have on soldiers and their families. And many of them have fought with the intention to defend the freedom of our countries but also to defend the freedom of people they even did not know, as humanitarian help. I know several secret stories of peace negotiations between countries where eg Dutch and British armies made the difference. I think that these contributions to peace, the good intention and their sacrifice needs to be acknowledged and we should support veterans and their families in their psychological recovery from the army. We owe them.
However as we all know, there are also other sides to the military and particularly the politics behind it. And we should address these sides. But we should not confuse our respect for the soldiers’ intentions with asking attention for the larger picture. This is what seems to happen now : the red poppy and the commemorations are too often not only about the good intentions and sacrifice (anymore), but they are implicitly or explicitly misused by some politicians to justify wars and glorify war heroes. Consequently, wearing a red poppy can contribute to a societal and political basis of support which can be used by the government to go into more wars; thus indirectly these red poppy wearers may create what they do not want: more deaths and psychological traumas. I think people should be aware of how the red poppies can be misused, when they wear a red Poppy. This is why some people wear a white poppy, which symbolises both respect and also a call for peace. At the same time I will not judge anyone wearing a red poppy as I don’t know their personal intentions behind wearing a poppy. At most I can say they may be ignorant or denying the societal complexity of the red poppy symbol.
Let’s further examine the symbolic (or possibly even the imaginary) meaning of the red poppy.
First, I focused on the text above on the good intentions of individual soldiers. By respecting good intentions such as defending peace, I step aside from the argument that the army may not have been effective in creating peace in reality. However are all intentions of soldiers good? Can young recruits know what the complexity of armies means in reality? Are they able to make a good decision to give their lives to the army? I think not: the minds of soldiers often gets manipulated. Many young kids as young as 16 years join the army in the UK with other intentions, as the army seems their only reasonable career option, and they know from the Hollywood movies how cool it is to become a military hero. The reality is often the opposite and several army generals have told me how many of these kids are not mentally ready, and their young manipulatable minds get bend forever. The most extreme example is that the manipulation of young minds is deliberately used by the Israeli army whose psychologists use prescription to brainwash young minds and create an anti-Palestinian nation (this is a fact, not an anti-israel opinion as I have inside information of the programme the soldiers go through). Other countries are possibly not much worse. Many young recruits love the physical drills but they can’t cope with the reality of war; psychologists have hard work making them ready for reality. Much research shows how being in the army can warp your personality; individuals can internalise their military training and radicalise in their opinions (eg due to cognitive dissonance reduction). They need our support, but possibly not the red poppy which sometimes seems to create a pro-army culture of heroism which attracts more young people to the army for unrealistic ideas and intentions.
Second, it is common fact that wars are not only fought for good intentions by governments. For instance there was little evidence for the involvement of Afghanistan in 9/11; instead there is very clear evidence for the involvement of Saudi Arabia, United Arabic Emirates and possibly Russia; Al Qaida was more often trained and living in these countries than in Afghanistan. But these countries have not been attacked. Because it would not benefit the West. Because Bill Clinton has his companies in the UAE. Because the USA and UK are the biggest arm dealers to Saudi Arabia and UAE. Because they need their oil. Facts. We all know that the invasion of Iraq was formally justified by the idea that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which he did actually not have. Despite their clear lies, Blair and Bush have not been summoned to The Hague International Tribunal, although their decisions have killed hundreds of thousands. I spoke with some high ranking individuals in the British and Dutch army who told me that there was consensus in the military top that military intervention will not help in Syria. They have send many reports to 10 Downing Street telling how military intervention would further escalate the dire human rights situation in Syria and would increase the threat of terrorism in the West (their reports have shown to be completely correct!). However Cameron ignored these reports and two weeks after he chaired the International Arms Fair in London his government ordered military involvement. It has been estimated that the Syria war has given the weapons industry billions in profit. Partially thanks to Cameron. Unfortunately the poor soldiers had to do as they were told, and they gave their time energy and life for a lost cause. But individuals can’t resign from the army as this would be regarded desertion. Like a friend who was demanded to help in Yemen and he refused to lead drones into the conflict “as this is not our war, and its an unfair war, with Saudi Arabia using heavy arms and British military intelligence against nomadic tribes with few arms or military intelligence”. Or for instance the other friend who trained the Israeli army how to use drones, but the Israeli army subsequently used his skills to attack a school about which they were not sure whether there were innocent children present or not. Thus even though some soldiers may have good intentions, they are embedded in a system which seems inherently mixed with good and many bad intentions, often focusing on making a financial profit and gaining political dominance. The red poppy does not seem to take this complexity into account.
Third, military research shows that wars are some of the least effective means to create a democracy and equality in a country. Changing the mind of one person is already difficult, and thus changing the minds of a full population with a long history is even more difficult. The most effective armies are those who focus on the constructive relationship with the local population such as the Dutch army. A Dutch general told me that a conflict cannot be won by arms but by hearts. Therefore the Dutch army has now sold most of its tanks, while simultaneously posting 900 vacancies for psychologists. Sounds right to me. But the red poppy is primarily worn for those in physical battles, while ignoring the possibly more effective and for certain more humane negotiatiors and psychologists.
Fourth, I wonder when we have a commemoration day for the victims of all wars? When do we start wearing symbols showing the complexity of peace and war? When do the children at school learn all perspectives on wars including the counternarratives? When do we wear poppies for the nurses, the doctors, the psychologists, the teachers, etc? The red poppy culture too often only asks attention for merely one voice while there are many other important voices as well.
In conclusion, I feel that the red poppy is part of a system which deliberately leaves out parts of the full story and which does not solve the problems of wars but further stimulates more wars and more gains for the financially hungry weapons lobby and politicians. Meanwhile I would love to have nuanced conversations about the complexity of this topic, without judging anyone. I don’t judge anyone with the right intention wearing a poppy or joining the army, but I won’t, as I see too much manipulation, too much ineffectiveness and too many unethical intentions.
Let’s create a world in which red poppies will never be needed anymore.
This post is triggered by the strong appeal of my friend Mark Weaver not to wear a “fucking poppy”. I agree with his YouTube message, but his video may have been a bit too short to explain for instance the complexity which I described in this post.