Once a symbol of remembrance and respect, the red poppy is now being used as a political tool by the government to “sell” its war on terror, a World War Two veteran has said.
Harry Leslie Smith, a former RAF serviceman, believes the poppy has been both “politicised and commercialised” and the requirement to wear it has become a “month-long dirge of patriotism”.
The 92-year-old’s comments come as scrutiny grows over the red patriotic symbol. Last month, former EastEnders star Barbara Windsor said that anyone who does not wear a red poppy should “sod off”.
Mr Smith does not wear a red poppy. He announced in 2013 that he would no longer allow his “obligation as a veteran” to be manipulated by governments to promote present-day wars.
Harry Leslie Smith says the red poppy is used to 'sell' the government's war on terror
Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, Mr Smith said: “Unfortunately, since we fell into the quagmire of the Iraq war and the ubiquitous war on terror, Armistice Day and the wearing of the poppy have been not only politicised but also commercialised.
“It is now almost a month long dirge of patriotism without context and without understanding the true cost of war.”
But the Royal British Legion maintains that the red poppy raises funds for veterans and their families and is “non-political and does not depict or support war”.
Those in the public eye who choose not to wear a red poppy are often vilified for it.
In fact the red poppy is often the only symbol that many TV channels allow their presenters to wear. As such, the absence of the flower on an outfit is noticeable and frequently condemned.
Chris Nineham, from the Stop the War Coalition, told the Huffington Post UK: “There is huge pressure at the moment on people to wear the red poppy. It appears to be virtually obligatory for politicians and journalists.”
This weekend, West Brom footballer James McClean again refused to wear a poppy during a match because of his personal beliefs. He has received death threats because of it.
McClean is not the only celebrity to shun the symbol. Sienna Miller, Jon Snow, Evan Davis and Charlene White have all come under fire for failing to wear a red poppy.
Sienna Miller was heavily criticised for not wearing a red poppy on The Graham Norton Show
Mr Smith said he does not mind if people choose to wear the poppy, but said that they should consider what it represents.
The veteran also urged people not to liken the present-day “war on terror” with his generation’s battle against Hitler.
He said: “I can assure you that the two are not the same. My generation gave our blood sweat and tears to be victorious against a tyrant who wanted to enslave us to a totalitarian state, whereas today we are more than willing to surrender our personal liberties to governments and corporations hoping that if we live in a state under constant surveillance we will not suffer physical harm.”
He added: “To me that type of trade off is just another form of terror and maybe the most dangerous kind.”
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Mr Smith is well known for not letting his past be manipulated to support people’s personal vendettas. In September, he shot down a 'racist' complaining about refugees on Twitter in spectacular fashion.
The author and veteran said that he couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of politicians who commemorate the fallen one-minute, and then participate in deals which will cause future deaths the next.
Speaking about last year’s huge Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red poppy installation at the Tower of London, Mr Smith said: “Almost immediately after November 11 the Tower, which had been used to mourn our dead, hosted a dinner for the arms merchants of the world which shows not only poor taste but the sheer hypocrisy of the government that commissioned the commemoration.
“Whereas this year on London Poppy Appeal Day the head of MI6 issued a report that Britain was a target for a major Isis terrorist attack, which I found to be a cynical ploy by both the government and the security services to use the sentiment of remembrance to sell this government’s dubious war on terror.”
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Mr Nineham, who is one of the founders of the Stop the War Coalition, said: “More and more it [the red poppy] is associated with the military.
“Soldiers sell it at stations, arms companies fund the British Legion, prewar politicians are amongst the most enthusiastic supporters of militarised commemorations.
“People wear the red poppy for different and mostly respectful reasons but given this huge establishment campaign behind it there is a danger that the red poppy becomes associated with current, aggressive British foreign policy posture.”
A spokesperson for The Royal British Legion said: “The Royal British Legion’s red poppy is a universal symbol of Remembrance and hope, including hope for a positive future and peaceful world, it is inclusive of all who wish to wear it, is non-political and does not depict support for war.
“Importantly, the red poppy raises funds to support our Armed Forces, veterans and their families in their time of need.”
There has been growing attention placed around alternatives such as the white poppy, which represents peace.
The white poppy symbolises peace
Produced by the Peace Pledge Union, the alternative symbol has been around since the 1930s.
Albert Beale, spokesman for the PPU, said that he believes the red poppy is used to “raise the flag of war” and to “justify the existence of the military”.
He said that the red poppy has always been political – never neutral, adding: “If war is so terrible then the rational response is that you are not having anymore wars.
“Politicians on Remembrance Sunday look mournful but the next day they are in their offices planning their next war and to me that is completely sick.
“We need to look back at war and we need to learn from it.”
Mr Smith concluded: “I have no issues if people feel the necessity to wear either type of poppy [red or white] as long as they think deeply about the nature and consequence of war and how it not only destroys lives but erodes democracy if it is perpetual.”