“We’ve chewed the dirt and dodged the rockets, are you going to tell me to wear a poppy? I’m a veteran, I’ll decide”


By Georgina Ryall


WE MUST wear a poppy in November. Whether it’s a footballer walking onto a pitch, or a journalist reading the headlines, it is asked that no one be exempt from sporting this symbol.

It is the time of year when people put politics aside to commemorate the immeasurable human cost of continuous wars since 1914. However this year, a group of veterans have chosen to recognise the victims of war in an alternative way.

Veterans for Peace gather at Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday 2014

Veterans for Peace (VFP) are a UK based group of former military men and women who campaign for the abolition of, ‘war as an instrument of national policy’.

The organisation demand ‘justice for all those affected by war’. Which would extend to include the high number of military who take their own lives, the countless civilians now dead, injured or displaced as well as the victims of extraordinary rendition who have been subject to torture in prisons from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay.

With the national remembrance commemorations leaving an increasing taste of hypocrisy in some of these veterans’ mouths, many choose to wear a white poppy if they choose to wear one at all.

This year VFP held their own Remembrance Sunday commemoration at The Cenotaph, the place where a few hours prior, leading politicians and members of the royal family led the national two minutes silence.

VFP at the Cenotaph

This is only the second time they have held this event and it saw veterans from wars ranging from Malaya to Iraq.

With their supporters in tow they walked sombrely through Whitehall to lay a wreath of white flowers under a banner with the plea, ‘Never Again’.

Members of the veterans group also wore jumpers with the revered WWI veteran, Harry Patch’s famous quote on the back: ‘War is organised murder, and nothing else’.

Despite the anti-war message however, the influence of military procedure remains steady in the members. None more so than in its founder, the whistleblowing former SAS soldier, Ben Griffin, known for taking the stage at the Oxford Union to tell why he will no longer ‘fight for Queen and country’.

The day before the Sunday commemorations, Mr Griffin carried out a meeting with soldierly vigour to go over VFP’s plans for the upcoming remembrance event. Each aspect of their commemoration is strategic, from the procession’s formation as they march through Whitehall to an even spread of the best singing voices for when they break into Pete Seeger’s, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’.

Mr Griffin is adamant that Remembrance Sunday is a day of reflection, not protest. As such, any members sporting placards or megaphones will be swiftly stamped on by their support stewards.

He added, “And one wrong photo or one wrong word to the press and someone will be getting a phone call.”

He smiles. The room laughs. But no one wants that phone call.

What sets the group apart from similar pacifist organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union or the Quakers is that they all criticise the government’s war policies from a position of having seen the horrors first-hand.

Joe Glenton, 32, was imprisoned for nine months after exercising his right to conscientiously object to returning to fight in Afghanistan. He is now an author, activist and key member of VFP.

joe glenton

He said, “This is the powerful thing about veterans for peace; we are veterans. We’ve chewed the dirt and dodged the rockets, are you going to bloody tell me to wear a poppy? I’m a veteran, I’ll decide.”

Speaking about his time in Afghanistan he said, “Due to my developing political views and to some extent my PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) I refused to go back. I went through the chain of command but that wasn’t recognised, so I added to the other 23,000 guys who’ve gone AWOL (absent without leave) since Iraq.

“This led to being court martialled and eventually all the main charges were dropped but they still stung me with a nine-month prison sentence of which I served five months.”

Mr Glenton is a critic of the ‘glorification’ of the national remembrance commemorations. However he admits it is a heated topic even amongst his fellow members.

He said, “We have guys who are WWII veterans and veterans of the wars of colonisation who wear the red poppy and are very proud but these are people whose dads were in the First World War when the poppy had a kind of angry, insurgent feel, a symbol of anger that so many people had died.”

He added, “But for the war on terror generation it’s quite different. They feel that the red poppy has been hijacked and been taken very far away from its origins.

“My own personal view? I don’t think big business should be involved in the poppy appeal at all, particularly not arms companies who make money out of wars.”

Mr Glenton is referring to some of the poppy appeal’s sponsors such as aerospace company Lockheed Martin UK, who between developing war heads and ballistic missiles also sponsored this year’s ‘Poppyrocks Ball’ hosted by the Royal British Legion.

Criticisms of the poppy appeal range from over sentimentality at best to propaganda at worst but these claims are dampened somewhat when discovering just how much money the Royal British Legion needs to raise for the after care of former military and their families.

The RBL claim they need to make £40m from this year’s poppy appeal to carry out their much needed welfare work. While their forecast report for 2005- 2020 shows the troublingly ‘deep pocket of need among veterans and their families’. Continue reading →