In the middle of a busy, cavernous railway station, in the juggernaut of the capital city of London, stand a group of soldiers. Some veteran, some freshly enlisted.
As scurrying passengers troop past, they are stopped by the soldiers and asked if they would like to donate toward the purchase of a red poppy — or to enlist in the military.
Not far away, a Remembrance Day ceremony is underway. Soldiers march to the sound of somber, doleful music. The sea of people in attendance, embellished with red poppies, take a minute of silence to remember the victims of war.
In the U.K., they hear Prime Minister Theresa May extol the armed forces, and with anguished forlorn vow to never let the atrocities of the First World War happen again.
Across the Atlantic, ceremony-goers hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wax much of the same.
All the while both supply arms to Saudi Arabia, who through macabre violence continue to slaughter Yemenis. All the while both Canadian and British troops remain deployed in Iraq, almost 14 years after the U.S.-led intervention laid siege to the country.
Remembrance Day, commemorated by countries in the British commonwealth with red poppies worn primarily by patriotic citizens in both Canada and the U.K., has from its outset glorified militarism and war.
“Right from the beginning ... it was controversial,” Symon Hill, coordinator of the Peace Pledge Union in the U.K., told teleSUR. “People saw it as celebrating the victory of war and the armed forces.”
As the day reserved to remember the horrors of a massive, inter-imperialist global war became more jingoist, even early on a pacifist movement focused on peace and remembering victims of all wars cropped up. Many of those involved were from the legions of war itself.
Among those conscripted, there were thousands of conscientious objectors, explained Hill, and these formed much of the Peace Pledge Union in its early days. The Union is now one of the main groups in the U.K. that distributes an alternative poppy around the time of Remembrance Day each year— the white poppy.
The white poppy was first proposed by the No More War Movement in 1926. It was then picked up by a now-defunct women’s auxiliary organization in the U.K. called the Co-operative Women’s Guild. Worn since as an alternative to the red poppy, it seeks to recenter the conversation on Remembrance Day around peace.
From its very conception, however, opposition to the movement was fierce.
One member of the Guild, in its early days, writes about the difficulty of the group’s pacifist stance, remembering the white poppy as “one of the most courageous things that ever happened – because in the period between the wars it was absolutely unthinkable not to wear a (red) poppy on 11th November”.
Another recalled, “People think there’s something wrong with me when I won’t buy a Flanders poppy … I have a funny feeling they think ‘Oh her, she doesn’t care’. But I do care — I care because they never should have lost their lives. To me war is just really dreadful.”
The Leeds Quakers group handed out more than 1,000 White Poppies in the city during Remembrance Day 2016. | Photo: Peace Pledge Union
Even today, that antagonism remains.
The Canadian Royal Legion has shown opposition to white poppies, and so has the former Canadian Conservative Party Minister of Veterans Affairs. In the U.K., opponents of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have attacked the former Stop the War coalition chairman’s defense of the white peace poppy, as well as the socialist's lukewarm commitment to commemorating Remembrance Day.
Such animosity has prompted the Peace Pledge Union to state, “The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War — a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers — but a challenge to the continuing drive to war.”
While Remembrance Day service ceremonies are used implicitly to justify ongoing engagement in war, veterans in both countries are systematically denied the health care and support they need.
In Canada, Stephen Harper’s decade-long regime significantly cut essential funding to veterans. And despite Trudeau’s Liberal campaign promise to restore many of these benefits, more than a year later, they have not been met.
"It's a betrayal," Donald Sorochan told CBC.
Sorochan is the lawyer representing six Afghan war veterans who filed a class-action lawsuit over pensions and other benefits. And despite Liberals promising to “ensure that no veteran has to fight the government" for such benefits, that promise was broken by the Department of Veterans Affairs, who allowed the Department of Justice to resume the lawsuit against the six Afghan war veterans in May of this year.
Trudeau and his wife take part in Remembrance Day ceremonies, both donning red poppies, at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. | Photo: Reuters
Across the pond, similar cuts to things like veteran pensions were made three years ago, and have left many with denied payments. One Armed Forces soldier, under the duress of new cut-off rules, was denied a staggering payment of nearly US$250,000.
Campaigner Jayne Bullock, founder of Pension Justice for Troops, who advocates on behalf of these veterans said, “It’s appalling that this injustice has yet to be corrected. Many of these brave individuals risked their lives for Queen and country. They have been abandoned and it sickens me to the core.”
This Remembrance Day, as the U.K. and Canadian governments talk reverently of “sacrifice,” hijacking the grief of veterans to further their militaristic aims, the narrative of victimhood must be disrupted.
As Joshua Gabert-Doyon writes, “those who fought in the world wars ... were essentially victims to the whims of imperialistic land grabs and the ruling class as a whole.”
“How can we talk about the colonial policies of European states and the war that was waged against colonized people across the world? How can we work towards a Remembrance Day that includes respecting the victims of colonial oppression?” he adds.
As the white poppy movement continues to persist in the wake of patriotic, nationalist Remembrance Day ceremonies, many former soldiers continue to be turned off by the day’s meaning.
“Ex-soldiers who now reject militaristic tones of remembrance now declare for peace,” said Hill, recounting how there are legions of veterans that show up to the alternative Remembrance Day events that are organized by the Peace Pledge Union.
“Their own experience of war (informs it).”