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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

All they are Saying is Give Peace a Chance

A few years back I wrote a Remembrance Day speech for then Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole. At her direction, I made sure that her speech included thanks to the veterans for their sacrifices and made note of their courage and valour. Lois also directed me to include a strong message of peace in the speech, and I did so. While most of the feedback received was positive, several people publicly noted that they were offended by the speech; they felt Lois had gone too far, as if calling for a world free of war somehow took away from the sacrifices of veterans.

At the time I was dumbfounded, but with that experience in my pocket I'm not surprised by the annual vitriol expressed toward those people who choose to mark Remembrance Day not with the red poppy of sacrifice, but the white poppy of peace.Social media is awash with people hurling the worst sort of abuse at people who favour the white poppy over the red, with a few peacemakers stepping in to say "why not wear both?"

That's not a bad solution, but it doesn't work for those who don't wear the red poppy because they believe that the symbol, intentionally or not, has become part of the cultural narrative that says war is necessary and okay. The poppy cannot be apolitical, as some claim, because it's become an integral part of that narrative. Wrapped up as it is in imagery of sacrifice, valour and blood, the poppy can't help but contribute to the central, garish appeal of war: from the outside, it's exciting. Conflict equals drama, which is why there are so many masterpieces that take war as their central theme; as a species, we can't help but be enthralled by it. I'm not immune; I love war movies and literature great and gaudy about war. 

Others avoid the white poppy not because they don't want peace, but because they realize there have been a few times in history when it seems pretty clear - at least if we trust the information we're fed by the custodians of truth and culture - armed intervention was necessary to save lives. The Second World War and various peacekeeping operations come to mind. In a heated moment several years ago I even wished that the UN would intervene to stop the Taliban from destroying ancient Buddhist artifacts, irreplaceable works of art. I might do so again if terrorists threatened the Louvre or the Guggenheim, come to think of it, even though I value human life more than artifacts - even when those lives are maniacal destroyers of art. And of course when people of ill will threaten the weak, I can't help but feel that intervention, even lethal intervention, can be a moral imperative.

But I do admire those who choose the white poppy, because if nothing else they are showing that a counter-narrative is possible. Perhaps a hundred years from now someone will invent knockout gas or stun beams with no side effects, enabling non-violent conflict resolution in even the most extreme circumstances. But that day won't come unless every human being values the life of every other human being, and in that sense I think those who wear the white poppy are performing an important service; at the very least, they're willing to be called some pretty horrible names in the service of peace (which of course is not the same thing as being willing to face bullets and bombs).

I have friends and relatives who have served and do serve in the military, who have risked life and limb because they believed it was the right thing to do. For that reason, I hesitated before expressing my feelings tonight about the poppy and the double-edged sword of remembrance. But I like to think they served so that I could express my views as a free human being, whether my views are right, wrong, or simply naive.

As for me, I wear neither poppy, because my feelings about war and remembrance are too conflicted to express with any one symbol. And perhaps because symbols - from soda brand logos to national flags to those poor innocent poppies - are like lit fuses themselves, just another trigger for conflict.


Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

I agree that peace is a laudable goal, often overshadowed by honouring the 'glorious dead' on Remembrance Day. I respect the right for individuals to express themselves on this, and all topics, as they please, and without fear of harassment.

Having said that, I still don't agree with the white poppy movement.

First of all, I resent the presumption that wearing a red poppy somehow glorifies war itself. I have never heard a veteran recall their wartime experiences with anything but the utmost sadness, and with the fervent wish that the listener might never experience such horrors. While it may be true that some have tried to amplify the martial tone of what should be a somber occasion, that failure is on them, not on the dead, nor on those who commemorate them.

Secondly, the white poppy is unnecessarily divisive. The point of Remembrance Day and the red poppy is to show support, both figuratively and literally (through poppy sales) of veterans both living and dead. By co-opting an existing symbol and making most people feel they have to choose between them, white poppy supporters are creating un-needed friction between those who prioritize peace, and those who want the emphasis kept on the sacrifices made by those who fought and are fighting still, which is what the day is ostensibly about.

It reminds me a little of the angry and disillusioned people in the 1960s who burnt American flags; such gestures do little to promote understanding and advance ideas, but force people to entrench, calcify and become needlessly defensive. I agree with Norman Thomas who said, "If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag; wash it."

susanrn92 said...

I agree with Stephen. I was poppy tagging today, that means taking donations for poppies. A woman came up to me and as she put her dollar into my collection box, and took a poppy told me a story about how her ancestors burned their guns in Russia instead of fighting in a war. I thanked her for telling me her story and am very glad she still saw it worthwhile to give support to vetrans.
The recent tour of Canadians in Afghanistan wasn't because we wanted to wage war there, and conquer another country. Can you imagine living in a place where you don't know if your local store will still be there tomorrow? Maybe it will be a bombed out crater, and your family won't be able to walk the streets for fear of gunfire. How is a white poppy going to help them?
The Legion poppy campaign supports vetrans, and this year that does not only apply to old people. "A new generation of veterans is coming home and turning to the Legion for housing, career transition counselling and trauma relief."
In my opinion, that is a worthwhile cause to support, and promotes peace in our community. If you don't feel you can wear a poppy and pay homage to the fallen, at least donate to those that are next to you and seeking help after serving for their country, risking their lives for our ideals of peace.

Jeff Shyluk said...

I agree with Stephen and Susan. Both pieces are well-written. So is Earl's commentary, but I cannot agree with it.

The red poppy is not a symbol of war glory, it is for remembrance. In the world of politics, Remembrance Day is often used a photo op, as a chance to be seen participating in a national ritual.

I don't see Remembrance Day as an opportunity for political grandstanding. Even as decent a politician as Lois Hole should have been more sensitive than that. However, we live in a world where the Order of Canada is awarded to newscasters and pop stars, and where federal politicians of any stripe can expect a state funeral.

Susan is right: the poppy sales are the most direct way for the public to financially support their veterans. Tax dollars go to funding helicopter flights for the defense minister, and veterans' benefits have been slashed to embarrassingly low levels under the Harper gov't. A federal politician can expect a state funeral. You don't want to know what is provided for veterans.

Buying white poppies means that the veterans don't see any of that money. Buying no poppy is all is just doing nothing.

As a member of Legion 133, I urge all Earliad readers to learn about what the Legion does to support the community and our veterans. Give to the Legion, donate to vets, volunteer, subscribe to the Legion magazine, do something. The veterans did not fight so that we would remain idle.

Earl J. Woods said...

My essential points remain unchanged: first, symbols have multiple meanings, and what one observer sees as a symbol of remembrance another sees as a symbol of violence. Who is to say who's right or wrong? I would argue that both can be true.

Second, it's important to challenge the prevailing wisdom, and the white poppy campaign does that, at risk of public ridicule and scorn (which I've already admitted can't compare to the risk of being shot or blown up).

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Ah, I misunderstood then; when you talked about how some people view the traditional poppy, I didn't realize that was how you felt about it.

You articulate your point eloquently as always, and of course we can agree to disagree, but maybe we are going about this all wrong in focusing on the symbols and the differences they can illustrate; maybe a better approach would be to look at how we DO commemorate those who gave up their lives in defense of their country.

If we take it as a given that this sacrifice was worthy of observance (to the point where it is a paid holiday for most if not all of us), then maybe it's more important to note what we will be doing at 11:00 on Monday.

We have small children with us, so I am not sure what we will do, but going to the Legislature or Ainsworth Dyer Bridge might be an option, or the parade at Patricia Park near us in Griesbach.

With active service people present and the laying of wreaths adorned with red poppies, these might not be ceremonies you are entirely comfortable with. Knowing you to be a man of both considered and considerate response, I am keenly interested in what observances you might suggest for those who feel the traditional symbol doesn't speak to them, but who feel obliged or perhaps compelled to remember publicly.

Earl J. Woods said...

Well, not so eloquently as I hoped, perhaps, for my own feelings about the red poppy (and the white) are complex and conflicted. I see the value in each; I see the deep philosophical problems with each. It's not for me to say how people should mark the occasion of Remembrance Day (should they choose to do so at all); for my part, I usually read a little war-themed history, and I read a number of news pieces and magazine articles about the day so that I'm absorbing as diverse a range of points of view as possible. This isn't a tradition I developed deliberately, but one that has evolved accidentally over the years.

The only reason I raise the issue at all is because I am keenly interested in discovering which actions do the least harm and promote the most good. I have not yet been able to determine if, as a cultural touchstone, Remembrance Day traditions do more harm than good. I think it's worthy of study, and I'm very open to being convinced either way. All I know is that I have no answers.

Jeff Shyluk said...

The Canadian red poppy is the trademarked symbol for the Royal Canadian Legion. It's as much a trademark as the symbol on Superman's chest, or the symbol on Kirk's. If you are unsure of what the symbol means, the Legion tells you on their website. If you want to read about how Remembrance works, that's the canonical source. If you are discovering other meanings, it's because you've found them yourself. If you don't want to know about what the poppy means, then your post is an insult to those of us who are trying to help.

However you choose to interpret any symbol comes from the basis of your own perception, and if you want to argue that, then we are at a standoff. All I can say is that there is and was a definite source for the Canadian red poppy. It is a century-old symbol that you can buy where the money helps veterans directly.

The destruction of war has two faces: one on the battlefield with the bombs and the bullets, and one that the survivors have to live with afterwards. That's why we Remember. That's why the veterans need our help.

Brave words about valour and glory and sacrifice from we who have not been to war don't offer much support. The politicians only show up at the Legion once a year. Reading about war might create an opinion, but your books don't get money and help into vet's hands. If you want to read, read about the Harper gove't cuts to veterans' subsidies. Then tell us about how you feel.

I am a Legion member. Maybe I am the crappiest, laziest one on their books, but I can at least say that I know what the poppy means, and that I am proud to wear it. I have tried to make a difference. Maybe my philosophy is screwed up and not as informed as yours, but I know with whom I want to stand. I stand with the veterans.

It is with the greatest effort that I am trying to not make this into a harangue. I see that you want to see as many sides of this issue as you can. But I also see you nearly glorifying inaction as a response. Certainly, if you do all this reading and research and then you never share it except around November 11th, that seems to me like the height of inaction. That chars my bricks to no end, at least with regards to how we treat our war vets.

Doing good is about doing something, first and foremost, and doing for the people who need it the most. Lois Hole needed a speech because you were obligated. Judging by what you told us, maybe it was the wrong speech. That can happen: you were writing on a topic you don't know a lot about for an event that's not clear to you. That's not your fault. I would have done the same thing in your place, and likely made things much worse. But Lois Hole did not need the most good that day. It's the veterans that need good help. If you want to give them words, they will accept them. But they need help. Our pocket change for a plastic flower is simply a start. Ten million dollars from nickels, dimes, and quarters is just a beginning. You want a touchstone to consider your actions, please think about that.

Earl J. Woods said...

Neither Superman's "S" nor Kirk's Starfleet delta are inviolate symbols, though. As a fan, I naturally interpret them as symbols of good; on the one hand, truth, justice and the American way, on the other, universal peace in a utopian future. But I recognize that Superman can also be seen as a symbol of brawns over brain, of American hegemony, of Christianty reinterpreted for the 20th century, just as Star Trek glorifies gunboat diplomacy, American exceptionalism and the 1960s status quo. Just because I don't agree with these interpretations doesn't mean I don't see the merit in them, nor is my interpretation necessarily the correct one.

Jeff, I do understand what the poppy means to Legion members and veterans; over the years I had to write Remembrance Day speeches not just for Lois, but for umpteen MLAs as well; I've been writing speeches professionally since 1998, dozens of them militarily themed, from Remembrance Day ceremonies to changes of command at military bases to commemorations of historical events like the Battle of the Atlantic, Vimy Ridge and too many others to count, all very well received by veterans save in the one instance I mentioned in this post. I'd have to be a complete lout not to get it. All I'm saying is that there's more than one interpretation, and yes, we're talking about personal meanings, so we are at a standstill.

I'm also well aware of how governments have neglected veterans. If it were up to me, members of the armed forces would be entitled to a full pension for the rest of their lives, including full medical coverage, paid for via taxes.

Admittedly my sentiments are somewhat hollow because in my perfect world everyone, veteran or not, would be entitled to live out their golden years in comfort; I see the necessities of life as basic human rights.

As for my pocket change, it's always gone to the homeless (many of whom are veterans); more substantial donations go to a number of other causes annually, most related to health and wellness and third world poverty. I normally never talk about how or when or why I donate, but I feel I have to correct the assumption in this thread and elsewhere that I do nothing.I don't do enough, it's true, but it's not nothing.

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Then here is my humble request:, for you and for anyone else reading: please, whatever else you may do on holiday Monday, please observe two minutes of silence in memory of our honoured dead at 11:00. It can be private, it can be public, but I earnestly plead, I beg, please do not carry on as though it is just another day. The malls are open and many businesses carry on as though it is, but it is not.

We don't make enough allowances for silence at the best of times, but regardless of our beliefs or values, I hope we can all appreciate the sacrifices made on November 11, and be grateful these men and women were willing to make them, and hope and pray we can go a little longer before asking others to do so again.