Britain’s Cult of the Fallen Soldier

As the run up to Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day) in the UK quickens, the red poppy is becoming a part of daily life, with an estimated 40 million made by the Royal British Legion each year. The red poppy this week will become a constant in the public sphere, and is so prevalent on the lapels of individuals it becomes almost unnoticeable.

Around the UK, citizens are answering the call of their nation, and in numbers are showing where their allegiance lies, to the soldiers of the United Kingdom past and present (as the Royal British Legion, the charity which produces the poppies, states), and subconsciously at the very least, to the British nation. The poppy becomes a symbol of identity, one that continuously reminds people of their national identity and those who fight under the banner of the nation, and the link is made that the soldier and citizen are one of the same collective.

I however, will not be wearing the poppy on the lapel of my shirt and I encourage others not to do so.

I will not be joining, to borrow from the historian George Mosse, Britain’s very own cult of the fallen soldier.

What is the cult of the fallen soldier? It is the symbolism of the fallen soldier, the belief in heroic sacrifice for the sake of the nation, that the soldier is the perfect embodiment of the citizen, willing to die for the nation and its people, and thus the people revere him.

The UK, each year in late October, early November, welcomes the cult of the fallen with open arms, the consequences of which I believe are rather dangerous in the long term.

Of course the argument that the public should honour Britain’s fallen by wearing the red poppy, and that the poppy is a symbol of remembrance and nothing else, seems perfectly valid, however it is flawed.

The red poppy, as the Royal British Legion states, is a symbol of remembrance for those British soldiers who have fallen, but crucially, the RBL also claims that it is one of support for those in current combat. The Royal British Legion as such is mixing war remembrance and the nation’s foreign policy; this cannot be argued as I will explain. Poppy wearers in the main, are well aware that what they are wearing is not just a symbol of remembrance, but also a show of support for British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Indeed, the poppy is meant to be seen, for the wearer is meant to show it off with pride, pride for those fallen soldiers and what they have done for their country and pride for British soldiers in current combat.

Where is the problem in that?

The danger is that the red poppy is strengthening and evoking pride in the nation’s public for war; that is, the idea that war is noble and just if the UK and the nation’s soldiers are part of it. The consequence of which is when questioning why the UK is taking part in current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the questioner can receive a rather hostile reception from the public as a collective. It is as though by questioning foreign policy, you are directly insulting each and every serving British soldier; which is preposterous. However this increasingly happens in the UK, and as every year goes by, it appears that less and less people question British involvement in conflicts overseas. Long gone are the mass rallies against war in Iraq in 2003. This is partially apathy, but it is also partially the belief that because it is British troops in conflict, dying for the British public, the reasons for their sacrifice must be noble.

Furthermore, citizens, especially during the build-up to armistice day, hear reference to ‘our brave troops fighting for our country’ and are told to ‘support our troops’ (such slogans are big-selling tools of certain papers), while becoming more and more distanced from the ugly reality of war through this use of empty slogans. These slogans portray war and a soldier’s role in it as a worthy and noble cause, while promoting the people of the nation to be proud of the nation’s role in current conflicts; this is the cult of the fallen at work.

I am not denying that conflict has not been necessary in the past. The two World Wars are living proof of that, and my respect and gratitude to those who died are heartfelt. However by jumping on a bandwagon of army support and chastising those who do not do the same, is doing no justice to British soldiers who were killed in action in the first half of the 20th century.

The scenario is therefore created in which citizens must be proud of the soldiers who serve their country. Those who question current conflicts in which soldiers serve, or feel unwilling to join in with the popular symbolism of the cult of the fallen, risk being branded disrespectful to the fallen soldiers of current and also crucially past conflicts and wars.

These slogans and the wearing of the red poppy – and I include the poppy considering the RBL considers it a show of support for troops in current combat – encourage the public to support the nation’s army and to be passionate about doing so. While further distancing the public from the reality that supporting such slogans gives an OK to sending young men and women into a conflict zone where they may never return, never mind whether the war is a necessary evil, as the two World Wars were described, or not. For a government with involvement in conflicts overseas, the cult of the fallen soldier is a blessing.

For these reasons I will not be wearing the red poppy, but instead a white one made by the Peace Pledge Union. The white poppy is a symbol of remembrance for all those who have died in war, not just one nation’s dead, or one nation’s fallen soldiers; but all deaths in all wars, civilian and soldiers, past conflicts and present. The death of one individual in conflict has the same worth and sadness attached to it as any other, and the white poppy promotes that.

The red poppy does not. It promotes one nationality, it promotes one profession, it ignores civilians, and worst of all it encourages collective silence in questioning British involvement in current conflicts that continue to see casualties week in week out, from all sides.

Matthew Vickery is a freelance writer who has also worked previously for the Palestine News Network in the West Bank. He is currently studying an MRes Middle East Studies at Exeter University and is a commissioning editor for e-International Relations and media liaison for RSG. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Matthew.