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Peace or poppies? The ethical dilemma that shouldn't be

peace-poppy.jpg

"Soldiers and sailors and airmen, too
Fought for us across the sea;
Brave and unselfish, strong and true,
Keeping Canada free!
I'll wear a poppy on Remembrance Day
To show I'm proud of what they did for me..."

We sang that song in sixth grade, before I had any real idea how ironic it was. You see, both branches of my family were on the "wrong" side of the two World Wars, being Germans (the one in northern Germany, the other in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia). My family was NOT Canadian at the time, and freedom? Under Hitler? Pah. At best, non-Jewish Germans only thought they were free, or that they were fighting for their freedom (or whatever other bogus "noble" cause was in vogue). If there was one thing most Germans knew full well, it was that the war was NOT about anybody's freedom. It was a farce, a dirty joke, for anyone to claim that it had to do with that. I didn't know that at the time; I just sang along in the school assembly, blithe and unquestioning, when directed to do so.

And of course, I knew nothing about how the town of Kitchener, Ontario--home to one of Canada's largest ethnic-German populations--used to be called Berlin. Or about how Japanese Canadians were interned, for no reason other than being Japanese...and Canadian. If I had known those things, the whole "freedom" meme would have been easier for me to question. But of course they don't teach you things like that in Grade 6!

Seven years later, and several decades wiser, I went on to win second place in the provincial division of the Royal Canadian Legion essay contest, this time acknowledging my ironies, lamenting the futility of war, and adding that the purpose of war memorials should not be to glorify war, but to remind us not to make more of them. I'm still proud of that essay, which was what helped me to sort my mind out about war, and come down on the side of peace. My basic conclusion still stands.

And that was how I made my peace with the poppy.

Now I'm of two minds about wearing it again. This letter to the editors makes a cogent case for not wearing it:

World War I, of course, is not the only war in which Canadians fought and died, but the "they died to make us free" model seems equally inappropriate to Canadian participation in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the (so-called) Gulf War. World War II is a different matter - Hitler and Nazism were obvious evils which had to be eradicated. Even granting this, there are moral ambiguities associated with that war which we still have difficulty acknowledging.

In 1992, for instance, Brian and Terence McKenna made a documentary (The Valour and the Horror) which looked carefully at the bombing of German cities by Canadian aircrews. Although careful to praise the personal valour of individual airmen, the McKenna brothers pointed out that these bombs rarely hit military targets but did kill thousands of civilians.

Furthermore, they noted, the Allied command knew perfectly well that these bombs were missing military targets and killing civilians but continued the raids nevertheless, as a way of demoralizing hostile populations. Finally, the documentary suggested these mass killings contributed little if anything to winning the war. There was nothing new in any of this. Academic historians had been saying similar things for years - but nobody listens to academics. A documentary on the CBC was another matter.

The response to the McKenna brothers was electric. Although many veterans were glad someone had finally had the courage to challenge the official version of history, other veterans and many veterans groups throughout Canada uttered squeals of rage. They used their influence to spark a Senate investigation and the CBC was pressured (with some success) to define the documentary a "docudrama." In other words, it was fiction not history - in contrast of course to the sanitized version of history promoted by veterans organizations. It was a disgraceful episode in recent Canadian history.

If we want the future to be a better place, we must confront the horrors of the past, even if that includes horrors for which Canada (or the United States or Great Britain or any of the other official good guys) were responsible - and that means challenging all sanitized versions of history, even those that come masked beneath the emotionally charged image of a blood-red poppy.

Meanwhile, a British campaign resurrects an old idea, one that might just finally gain some traction in the age of the Internets, when buried history gets dug up again and dusted off:

The idea of decoupling Armistice Day , the red poppy and later Remembrance Day from their military culture dates back to 1926, just a few years after the British Legion was persuaded to try using the red poppy as a fundraising tool in Britain.

A member of the No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppies instead of 'Haig Fund' and failing this pacifists should make their own flowers.

The details of any discussion with the British Legion are unknown but as the centre of the red poppy displayed the 'Haig Fund' imprint until 1994 it was clearly not successful. A few years later the idea was again discussed by the Co-operative Women's Guild who in 1933 produced the first white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day (later called Remembrance Day). The Guild stressed that 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 women lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers. The following year the newly founded Peace Pledge Union joined the CWG in the distribution of the poppies and later took over their annual promotion

And here's an irony: The same Royal Canadian Legion who saw merit in my ambivalent essay, and who also claim with a straight face that the poppy represents those who died for our freedom...have tried to ban the free-speech gesture that is the white poppy!

Remind me of what all that warring and dying was for, again?

I would love to wear a white poppy. I think it's the perfect gesture: Honor the dead, by speaking for life and peace. But I live in a fairly conservative town, where the white poppy campaign has yet to reach. I can't see our Royal Canadian Legion branch selling them anytime soon; their official position is apparently still stuck somewhere around the same level as that sixth-grade jingle.

And I'm not the kind of person who stands on street corners selling things, braving ignorant people's abuses alone.

So here I am again, stuck on the horns of the same old dilemma: Peace or poppies?

How about peace AND poppies?

Sigh.

Guess I'll throw some coins in the box and fish out the old red poppy yet again...and pin a peace button right next to it, just so people know why I'm really wearing that thing. And if anyone wants to argue that it's an insult, I'll point to both and remind them that we peaceniks fight this fight so their loved ones don't have to go die for someone else's arrogance all over again.

Comments

I have the same mixed feelings about the red poppy (and had never heard of the white poppy before.) The whole "they fought and died for our freedom" meme is so abused, especially in the US, where it has been turned into a reason for invading other countries ("they hate us for our freedoms").

And two other factors complicate my feelings even further. One is that the actual veterans - the people, not the institution of the Legion - have not been well treated by our government. So if possible I buy poppies from the vets themselves (not from the boxes on the counters) and hope they see it as a form of respect and support.

The other is a little weird. Background: I live in Nunavut and my work is serving the mostly Inuit population. One Canadian institution in which the Inuit participate as near equals is the Forces, and specifically the Inuit Rangers. Military exercises here could not take place without the arctic expertise of the Rangers, and from time to time a commander who thinks he knows better finds that out the hard way. Rangers are justifiably proud of their skills, knowledge, and contributions - and it is one of the few instances of their contributions being recognized and valued by a national institution. They don't get anything like the pay, benefits or security of the regular forces, of course. So I wear the red poppy here in Iqaluit to show my support for, and my pride in, the Inuit Rangers.

And whatever dilemmas I have don't last long, because those poppies, I swear, are made to fall out in a matter of hours.

You are such an ignorant, intolerant piece of Canadian shit. Mind your own fucking business, freak.

Um, who's the ignorant, intolerant piece of shit who can't mind his own business? A peace-hater from Oklahoma FreakScene City. Where, if I recall correctly, a warmonger blew up a federal building with kids in it and called them "collateral damage".

The irony boggles the mind, and it's lost on this fucking idiot.

Stay classy, "pub". You can tell the asshat's being inspired by Sarah Palin telling people that "you can never be too far-right". I just hope we're not looking at another Rwanda in 20 years from now, thanks to Palin and her Oklahoma ilk.

I loved this post, Sabina. I have heard of the white poppy, but never seen any anywhere I've lived across this country in the last decade. I would love to wear one, however, because I feel it better reflects my feelings about the whole Remembrance Day event than the red poppy does.

Good post. I find it important to challenge things and what others believe in so that they really come to understand what it is they believe. More often than not, once they have examined what it is they believe, there is a change of mind.