Red Flowers and White Feathers

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

 – “Conscientious Objector,” Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1934

The white feather has many meanings in different cultures. In British culture, it is a symbol of cowardice, of shaming those who refuse conscription to a brutal war:

At the outset of the war, Britain relied on volunteers to fill the trenches and recruiters were not afraid to harness the power of shame and embarrassment to fill their quotas of men to ship to the killing fields of France and Belgium.

One army recruiting poster, addressed “To the young women of London”, baldly stated: “Is your ‘Best Boy’ wearing Khaki? If not don’t YOU THINK he should be? If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will NEGLECT YOU!”

The white feather movement unabashedly capitalised on such sentiment and within weeks young men were being confronted by women bearing their symbols of cowardice.The effect was often powerful and immediate.

James Lovegrove was only 16 when he was confronted by a group of women on his way to work. He wrote: “They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did? They stuck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed. I went to the recruiting office.”

Despite initially being told to go away because he was under age, the recruiting sergeant eventually took pity on him and falsified his measurements. Lovegrove added: “All lies of course – but I was in.”
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: White feather for winner of Victoria Cross

A note given to the younger brother of a conscriptee. The boy was ten years old.

A note given to the younger brother of a conscript. The boy was ten years old.

But it is not the same across the globe.

In Native American culture:

The plume of an Eagle Feather or fluff is white, billowy and soft. It presents the purity, lightness and gentleness of a child full of the spirit and so new to the cycle of life. The plume is distinctive and usually a token of honor.

The plume in the Cycle of Life is the beginning of the formative years, childhood. It is the age of innocence, pride and dreams – a time for bonding and attachment to relationships, values, attitudes, behaviors, personalities, character and to the environment. It is a time for security and integration.

“To Native American peoples in every location where eagles are indigenous, they are a revered animal. The greatest gift and honoring one can receive in our cultural way is to be given an eagle feather, feathers, or other part, such as a talon.”

Such irony, that a gift intended to shame and ridicule a man in one culture would be considered “the greatest gift” one could give in another! American culture symbolically linking white feathers to courage persists even to modern times:

In the United States, the white feather has also become a symbol of courage, persistence and superior combat marksmanship. Its most notable wearer was US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, who was awarded the Silver Star medal for bravery during the Vietnam War. Hathcock picked up a white feather on a mission and wore it in his hat to taunt the enemy. He was so feared by enemy troops that they put a price on his head. Its wear on combat headgear flaunts an insultingly easy target for enemy snipers.

The North Vietnamese Army placed a bounty of $30,000 on Hathcock’s life for killing so many of their men. Rewards put on US snipers by the NVA typically ranged from $8 to $2,000. Hathcock held the record for highest bounty and killed every Vietnamese marksman who sought it. The Viet Cong and NVA called Hathcock Lông Trắng, translated as “White Feather”, because of the white feather he kept in a band on his bush hat. After a platoon of Vietnamese snipers was sent to hunt down “White Feather”, many Marines in the same area donned white feathers to deceive the enemy. These Marines were aware of the impact Hathcock’s death would have and took it upon themselves to make themselves targets in order to confuse the counter-snipers
Carlos Hathcock

But I think the most potent symbolism of the white feather is one that resonates ironically with the “White Feather Brigade” of the First World War – a symbol of passive resistance, where refusing to fight does not mean refusing to oppose:

Te Raukura is an important symbol to the tribes who affiliate to the Taranaki rohe.  This symbol is captured in the form of a white feather, or a plume of white feathers.  Te Raukura represents spiritual, physical, and communal harmony and unity.  It is an acknowledgement of a higher spiritual power, which transcends itself upon earth.  It is a symbol of faith, hope, and compassion for all of mankind and the environment that we live in.

There are various accounts of how the Raukura feather became such a significant symbol to the people of Taranaki.  Its origins tend to look within the tribal boundaries of the iwi, Taranaki, with particular reference to the marae of Parihaka.  One such account refers to a gathering of people at Parihaka who witnessed an Albatross landing on one of its courtyards, dropping a single feather before departing.   This feather became the Raukura, and was honoured by Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, two of the prophetic leaders of Parihaka, and its community.

Through the distinct and honourable leadership of these two prophets, the Raukura feathers became a symbol of peaceful co-existence as a Māori nation.  This appealed significantly to the iwi of Aotearoa who had become fervently oppressed and marginalised by the Crown.  The Raukura feathers were a symbol of the passive resistance movement that Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai orchestrated as a means of re-elevating the mana of the Māori people with a desire of being autonomous once again.

It is stated that the Raukura feathers encompass teachings of the Bible, with particular attention to the following passage:

He whaikororia ki te Atua i runga rawa
Glory to God on high

He maungarongo ki runga i te mata o te whenua
Peace on earth

He whakaaro pai ki te tangata
Goodwill to all mankind

(Luke 2:14)

Traditionally, the Raukura was worn either as a single feather resting upon the head or in the hand of the bearer, or as a crest on the chest area of a garment. It is also worn as a plume of three feathers in the hair which capture the meaning of the above Bible passage.  The Raukura is a symbol of remembrance for the deeds of the Māori ancestors who vehemently resisted the Crown via peaceful opposition.  It is a symbol which continues to guide the Māori people today with wisdom and hope for a peaceful co-existence.
Port Nicholson Bloc Settlement Trust: Feather

In the end, I cannot bring myself to wear a poppy of any stripe: too reminiscent of the blood-drenched fields of Flanders, Passchendale, Ypres. Even the noble white and black poppies are too tied to the commercialisation of remembrance. The famous artwork everyone’s talking about doesn’t look pretty or appealing to me – it looks like a grim stone fortress vomiting blood, rivulets pouring down the walls, each poppy a red corpuscle. A soldier. A life. Far from “beautiful,” I think it’s a perfect symbol of what World War One was all about: something that’s supposed to be beautiful and noble and inoffensive when you view it up close, but draw yourself back, and all you see is a red tide.

But a feather? Reclaiming what was intended as a badge of shame and humiliation, and defiantly adopting it as a symbol of pride in the face of condemnation? Aye, that I could do.

When I hit the streets back in ’81
Found a heart in the gutter and a poet’s crown
I felt barbed wire kisses and icicle tears
Where have I been for all these years?
I saw political intrigue, political lies
Gonna wipe those smiles of self-satisfaction from their eyes

I will wear your white feather
I will carry your white flag
I will swear I have no nation
But I’m proud to own my heart
I will wear your white feather
I will carry your white flag
I will swear I have no nation
But I’m proud to own my heart
My heart, this is my heart

We don’t need no uniforms, we have no disguise
Divided we stand, together we’ll rise

We will wear your white feather
We will carry your white flag
We will swear we have no nations
But we’re proud to own our hearts
We will wear your white feather
We will carry your white flag
We will swear we have no nations
But we’re proud to own our hearts
These are our hearts
These are our hearts
You can’t take away our hearts
You can’t steal our hearts away
I can’t walk away
No more


6 thoughts on “Red Flowers and White Feathers

  1. xsticks says:

    Thanks Taranaich. Thoughtful and moving.

  2. Absolutely marvellous. You’ve summed up my feelings about the whole poppy obsession. This is the first year I have not worn one. I continue to observe the silence as originally intended – an act of mourning; in my case for those lost on ALL sides.
    To my mind, Remembrance in the UK has been subverted as the manifestation of the British State’s true religion; the worship of war and militarism. We must walk away from this mentally ill union soon.

  3. Morag says:

    Thought-provoking piece. You’re probably not familiar with the opera “The Silver Tassie” by Mark-Anthony Turnage. At the centre of that work, and sitting quite outside the main development of the plot, is a soul-searing sequence that runs the tale of the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel in reverse.

    In the original, the dry bones are re-clothed in flesh and become a mighty army. (The song about the shin bone connecting to the thigh bone covers the same thing light-heartedly.) In the Turnage piece, the generals of WW1 render a mighty army down to a valley of dry bones. Stark, uncompromising, and absolutely damning.

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