At this time of year it is considered respectful to wear a poppy. Most often when something is considered respectful, that causes me to stop and examen it very closely. So often you find that respect is a shield for things that are morally repulsive when considered and discussed.
There was a time when I would not wear the poppy and for what I thought was a good reason. I know many people who refuse to wear the poppy still. I never supported Canada’s involvement in the Afghan intervention. I don’t think it’s NATO’s job to make war in the middle east. But when I listened to the assemblies at school and watched the news, the poppy was made into a symbol of Canadian soldiers’ ongoing battle against the Taliban, as well as past wars. Thus it was a symbol of violence, colonialism, and unilateral war: all things that I am strongly against.
But the media and the establishment don’t get to decide what the poppy is a symbol of. We do. Equating remembrance of the veterans of past wars with supporting an ongoing war is an emotional con job. It confuses politics with personal stories. It uses the taboo of criticizing veterans as a shield against criticizing Canada’s military decisions.
I submit that anyone who doesn’t feel strongly about remembrance day hasn’t really thought about it. If you get just a taste of what wartime is like, it becomes a very sombre occasion. Today I attended an anglican service in the north end of Queen’s Park held by the 48th Highlanders Regiment. The pipe bands and poetry were quite moving but that’s not what stirred the audience most. That honour went to a battery of artillery pieces firing blanks on the other side of the park. I saw them on my way in and thought “Cool! They’re going to fire off guns in the park!” But it was not Cool. The sound alone, even knowing there were no shells falling, was one of the scariest things I’ve ever witnessed. You can actually feel the shock-wave from several hundred meters away.
I do not support the military in any of it’s efforts and I haven’t for a long time but I have decided that remembrance day is about people, people like my grandfather Ken McLennan who left his girlfriend Alice to fight in Europe for five years. Think about it for five seconds. Do you want to be separated from your loved ones for five years? Do you want to hear artillery fire every day? I nearly pissed myself from a few blanks! I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. My grandfather was lucky and made it home to marry Alice, my grandmother, have two sons, and one of them had me. Millions of men and women were not so lucky. Doesn’t this sacrifice deserve your respect?
Now as an historian, I cannot have these thoughts without also considering the horrible things that the allies did, like bombing hundreds of civilian cities in germany and Japan and dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have been convinced by extensive historical research that South Korea started the Korean war. Though these discussions may have been treasonous during their respective wars, they in no way detract from the sacrifice of individuals.
So this year I’ll wear the red poppy proudly on my lapel knowing that, though they may try, the media and the government cannot equate the courage and honour of men and women with their political goals and Canadian nationalism. I will honour people who lived through a hell that we can only begin to imagine to make my life safe and not the motives or the tactics or the politics of any war. I’m a pacifist and a libertarian who will honour any person who would fight or die to keep me safe. There is no contradiction in that.
In the comments below, tell me why you will or will not be wearing a poppy this remembrance day.