I remember the sadness in my father’s eyes when he would mull over faded pictures of a friend who never came home. I remember chuckling about the lighter moments of POW life related by a friend’s father, but registering how he refused to talk about what it was like to be captured at Dieppe. I often think of another long lost friend, the son of a bomb disposal expert, who was forced to watch his psychologically damaged father commit suicide in a drunken stupor some 20 years after the war ended.
While I make a point of observing Remembrance Day, I shun the large military gatherings with the mournful buglers and the howitzers’ deafening “salutes.” To me, these kinds of observances seem calculated to ensure we will continue to view war as equal measures of valour and glory. They do not present war as what it is: legalized murder and clear evidence that, after millennia of evolution, we still lack the imagination it takes to live in peace.
Remembrance Day has its origins in the wake of World War One: the so-called “war to end war.” While WW1 has often been presented as a struggle between the forces of democracy and tyranny, it was, in reality, a clash of empires that yielded 40 million deaths and laid the basis for an even larger conflagration a generation later.
WW1 is often portrayed as when Canada “came of age.” Canada won the right to play with the big dogs by sacrificing (in round numbers) almost 67,000 of its sons and daughters. I’ve often wondered how our lives would have differed if this tremendous human potential had not been squandered, in Flanders and elsewhere.
Every Canadian who went through our school system is familiar with the poem by Colonel John McCrae, himself a casualty of “The Great War.”
In Flanders Fields
written in 1915 by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
For me, the poppy is an object of meditation on the tragedy of blood needlessly spilled over the past century, and on the folly of our latest military adventure in Afghanistan. Switching imperial masters, we now send our troops to kill and to die on behalf of the American Empire, the British Empire having passed its best-before date sometime around 1945.
The poppy is iconic; in a curious way, it unites us. You will find it on the lapels of peaceniks and militarists and everyone in between.
The poppy is sacred: it reminds us of young lives brutally snuffed.
The poppy is evil: it urges us to “take up our quarrel with the foe.”
The poppy is a major source of income in Afghanistan for corrupt government officials, warlords and insurgents alike.
I won’t be attending any Remembrance Day ceremonies this year, either. But I will be wearing my poppy, and I will remember.