No More Poppies

I’m not wearing a Poppy this year.

There are two ways of thinking about the Poppy. One is the Wilfred Owen way and one is the John McRae way. They are both familiar.

Here is Owen:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

And here is McRae

        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.

McRae says that war is tragic and heroic; Owen says it is tragic and futile. McRae demands that the death of soldiers
be given meaning by continuing the war that caused their death. Owen
demands that we admit the meaninglessness and criminality of those deaths and prevent further ones.

In Canada at least, the Poppy is now inextricably tangled with the McRae vision of soldiers and warfare. Here is the Canadian Legion’s site:

His poem speaks of Flanders fields, but the subject is universal – the
fear of the dead that they will be forgotten, that their death will
have been in vain. Remembrance, as symbolized by the Poppy, is our eternal answer which belies that fear.

Now Canadian soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan while British soldiers fight in Iraq. The Poppy asks that we give meaning to the death of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan by "Tak[ing] up our quarrel with the foe"; by pursuing the war. The Poppy has been taken over, in recent years, by those who are using it to perpetuate "The old Lie". Jingoistic patriotism has got its grubby hands on what was once a fine symbol.

Not everyone who wears a poppy means these things by it, of course. Many do as a recognition of the sacrifice of relatives in the second world war.  I have no problem with that. It would be much simpler to reject the Poppy if it weren’t for the Second
World War. It was, obviously, the essential war that needed to be
fought, and which did have undeniable meaning. But the Second World War
was not the template for wars since then; it was the exception not the

For me, I can’t see how I can wear a Poppy without helping to promote the idea that Canadian soldiers are fighting for just and noble causes. And I can’t do that.

We do have an old Alliance for Non-Violent Action button with a poppy and the words "To Remember is to End All War". I’ll wear that instead.

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  1. Where to begin?
    To remember is to end all war? How exactly do you propose to achieve this? I dare say that you are at the very least confused, at worst dangerously naive and misinformed.
    Let’s start with “war is tragic and futile”.
    Certainly it is tragic for the people who die and suffer under it. But do you really think it’s futile? It seems to have benefited us quite nicely, but also others. War is certainly not futile to the power elites in North Korea, most of the African continent, Burma, and countless other parties who have reaped immense power and money from war, at the expense of their less privileged countrymen and the international community. I doubt that most people who suffer under these power whores have quite the same relationship as you with Owen’s verse.
    The notion that the dictatorships and tyrannies of the world will simply vanish when faced with an ocean of peace activists and white poppies is absolutely ridiculous. Yet this is precisely what privileged, powerful and intelligent people like yourself try to convince others to do. Turn the other cheek, the enemies of democracy and civil society will not dare slap us twice in the age of the internet and mass media. Bullshit.
    The problem is that you assume that others think the same way you do. Or worse, you might think their points of view are equally valid. How postmodern! Does Kim Jong-Il have the same “peace on earth” goals as yourself? You give him the benefit of the doubt.
    Is it really obvious to you that the rest of world operates on a rational, progressive, modern playing field? You have the benefit of being enlightened, of having an education, of having access to multiple sources of information of which you can verify their authenticity and value.
    Peace is the goal here: the only reason you treat it as a weapon to be used against others is because you have it.
    You spit on your freedom and the people who fought for it.

  2. You make a whole lot of assumptions about what I think. Almost every one of them is wrong. You also put your own interpretation on pretty much everything I wrote, and got it wrong as well. Either I wrote very unclearly, in which case I am sorry, or you read the piece carelessly. Either way, I don’t think there is much room for dialogue. Judging by your final sentence, you aren’t interested in that anyway.

  3. I wouldn’t respond to your post if I wasn’t interested in dialogue. I happen to find your stated position very contradictory. I don’t think you’ve written unclearly: I just think you’re wrong.
    Sure, I make assumptions about what you think. However, there are cues in your statements that are difficult to ignore. For example, you do not think Canadian military operations in Afghanistan are worthwhile, yet it would shock me to find out you did not want peace there. You imply that Canadian troops in Afghanistan are there in a criminal capacity, but I’m assuming that you might consider some future war worth fighting. I don’t think these are unreasonable assumptions.
    My position is that non-interventionist positions vis-a-vis Afghanistan are extremely problematic and exemplify the idiocy of current day anti-war movements.
    What exactly do you think would happen to Afghanistan if Canadian troops were not there?
    For some reason, it’s acceptable for others around the world to commit violence in the name of the most pathetic belief systems, while Canadian efforts to protect the basic human rights and freedoms of an exploited and abused people are made to be morally questionable.

  4. I’ve got my poppy, and the girls are off tomorrow in the remembrance marches. As the 11th is on a weekend we will miss the moment when packed dealing rooms fall silent for two minutes.
    For me, its simply about remembering the millions of men on both sides who died on the battlefields.

  5. btw no-one in the UK makes a connection between wearing poppies and the rights or wrongs of wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
    There’s a clear difference between one’s thoughts on politicians actions, and support for soldiers who sign up to serve irrespective of where politicians may send them.

  6. Martin – your rephrasing of my views is pretty much on target this time. But I do disagree with your final paragraph. First off, regardless of what others around the world do, I’m sure you’d agree that Canada should make every effort to act properly. We are not in a contest to see who is least bad. And being (part) Canadian, I don’t think it’s a double standard to question our own conduct more than that of (say) Burma. It’s not that I think we are even close to comparable, but in a democracy we’re responsible for what Canada does, and we’re not responsible for what Burma does. That’s not double standards, that’s being practical and trying (as I’m sure you are also) to do the right thing.
    As for Afghanistan with and without Canada. Let’s remember that Canada agreed to send soldiers to Afghanistan in October 2001. We did not go there to protect human rights or engage in a reconstruction project, we went there because that’s where Al Qaeda was. Our success appears to have been to help remove an abysmal, cruel, woman-hating regime and to install in its place a patchwork of corrupt, cruel, warlord-based narco-fiefdoms. And now, I don’t see that the continued presence of Canadian troops is likely to help the Afghan people.

  7. Dipper – there is a distinctly different quality to the Poppy campaign in the UK and in Canada. You can see it by comparing the home pages of the legions in the two countries. The British Legion is very clear that the Poppy is a service campaign, about providing support to those who fought in wars and that Remembrance Day is, as the Spectator article also says, about remembering suffering. “One just thinks of the horror of it; and of the magnificent, unreasoning self-sacrifice of which human beings are capable, and one is moved. As time goes on one can feel pity for the German troops and people, too, in both wars.”
    The Canadian Legion site has a different tone. Here are some paragraphs:
    At 0530 hours on the morning of 9 April 1917, the Battle of Vimy Ridge began, marking an important milestone in our military history. For the next few days, Canadian troops fought relentlessly, braving enemy forces, a heavily-fortified ridge and the weather. This battle was significant; not only was it a resounding success for Canada but, in the words of Brigadier-General A.E. Ross, it marked the
    “birth of a nation”. No longer would Canada be overshadowed by the military strength of her allies. This battle had proven Canada’s ability as a formidable force in the theatre of war.
    The bravery, discipline and sacrifice that Canadian troops displayed during those few days are now legendary. The battle represented a memorable unification of our personnel resources as troops from all Canadian military divisions, from all parts of Canada and from all walks of life, joined to collectively overcome the powerful enemy at considerable odds. Our troops united to defeat adversity and a military threat to the world.
    Now, decades later, Canadians stand united in their Remembrance as they recognize and honour the selfless acts of our troops from all wars. We realize that it is because of our war veterans that we exist as a proud and free nation.
    Today, when people from all parts of Canada and from all walks of life join together in their pledge to never forget, they choose to display this collective reminiscence by wearing a Poppy. They stand united as Canadians sharing a common history of sacrifice and commitment.
    The tone elsewhere in political debate here has, sadly, gone even further towards identifying the suffering of soldiers (of all wars) with the justness of their cause and with an insistence that we give their deaths meaning by taking up their quarrel with this ill-defined, ambiguous foe. That’s what I can no longer support.

  8. thanks for that Tom. The link between the poppy and the British Legion, ie that poppies are made by those injured in war, is pivotal to the position of the poppy and remembrance day. the media in the UK has been full of the individual stories of the very few remaining soldiers involved in WWI, and said nothing about the politics of the time.
    I’ll be watching this tonight
    its about Rudyard Kipling and his son. the interviews on the site are indicative I think of the current attitude to the era of WWI and the empire – its gone beyond the politics of empire to look at the personal stories and contradictions of the time.

  9. Most years I’ve refused to wear a poppy because it seems like an endorsement of militarism / British nationalism / Britain’s presence in Ireland / Iraq I / Iraq II. Some years I’ve worn one to remember the war against Nazism and Fascism. This year I wore one for precisely the reasons Dipper describes: for all the poor bloody soldiers, killed in someone else’s war.
    But I might feel differently if *the* war, in terms of current headlines, were Afghanistan rather than Iraq, or if there were more support for the war. By this stage the presence of British troops in Iraq is an almost completely uncontroversial topic: the Iraqis want them out, the troops want to come out and we want to bring them out.

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