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November 10, 2014

Tomorrow’s Remembrance Day observance will be especially poignant, as it marks the centenary of the onset of the “the war to end all wars”. Sadly, that epithet, coined by H.G. Wells, proved to be as fictional as the author’s most memorable works. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh, blindly sowing the seeds of militarism, violence and new wars to come. There has hardly been a day since when people have not been dying or killing others somewhere in the world.

Armistice Day, as it was originally called, was a celebration of the end of the horrific hostilities of the Great War. Since WWII, it has become Remembrance Day, an opportunity to pay homage to the sacrifice of those who served in that war as well. With each subsequent conflict, its scope was expanded to encompass the veterans of those as well.

Most Canadians attending tomorrow’s commemorations will wear the traditional red poppy. In WWI Europe, devastated nature’s first resurrection was in the form of the scarlet corn poppies that sprung forth from the blasted wasteland created by warfare. Memorialized in poetry by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, this delicate yet irrepressible flower became the accepted emblem of remembrance.

While I respect many of the sentiments it has come to embody, I have some issues with it. I believe the red poppy sets up a hierarchy of the victims and ignores the wider realities of war. While validating and venerating the contribution of those in uniform, elevating them to hero status, it ignores the millions of civilians who were innocent victims of conflict, those who themselves were slaughtered, incinerated, mutilated and brutalized, or whose families were shattered. It ignores those who were traumatized by the horrors of war. It ignores the families of servicemen, who were deprived of their husbands, fathers, and brothers either by death or by ongoing trauma upon their return. It ignores those who were displaced, who lost their homes and livelihoods, those who starved when needed resources were diverted to support the war effort.

Although initially symbolizing a celebration of peace, the red poppy was soon co-opted, coming to indicate implicit support of military values.   All the pro-military pageantry that surrounds Remembrance Day observances seems to me to romanticize war, political leaders who callously believe that force is the way of solving any situation exploiting the patriotic fervor of the occasion to promote Canada’s current military campaigns. The day has become subtly synonymous with unthinking chauvinistic patriotism.

Money raised through the sale of poppies by the Legion is used to support Canadian veterans. While this is commendable, it enables the government to shirk its responsibility to them. The current government has closed many Veterans Affairs offices across the country and refuses to fund proper care for the physical, psychological and moral trauma of our returning servicemen, notably the many Afghanistan vets dealing with PTSD that sometimes ends in suicide.

It seems self-evident to me that as a Christian I ought to be affirming peace, rather than war, in the name of Christ. Therefore I have come to give preference to the white poppy. It is a symbol of sorrow and regret for victims of all nationalities, armed forces and civilians alike. To wear a white poppy is to recall the terrible truths about war’s devastation, to make a statement that war is a crime against humanity. As Harry Patch, the last British survivor of WWI until his death in 2009, put it, “War is organized murder.” The white poppy acknowledges that the best way to show respect for those who died in war is to ensure that no one ever again has to follow their footsteps into battle. It symbolizes an unambiguous commitment to peace.

I know that there is considerable controversy around the white poppy.  The Toronto Sun quoted Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino as saying that the white poppies are disrespectful towards the purpose of Remembrance Day. Some question the patriotism of anyone who would wear one. A particularly vociferous blogger wrote, “Wearing a white poppy is a great way to show people that you’re a limp-wristed hippie who hates the troops and wants the terrorists to win.” In 2010, the Royal Canadian Legion sought to halt the proliferation of white poppies by threatening to bring legal action against a distributor. Is this what those who gave their lives fought for—the suppression of free expression?

I am not advocating that everyone forsake red poppies for white. That is a matter of conscience. In fact, the two are not antithetical; they can peacefully coexist on the same lapel. What I am advocating is a move away from glorifying past wars toward heartfelt grief at the seeming incapability of the peoples of our world to resolve their differences in a peaceable way, and an unwavering commitment to not contribute to the situation.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.

The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Tomorrow I will remember my remarkable stepfather, Edwin Nordman, who served in the Motor Ambulance Corps during World War II. He never romanticized war. In fact, I could never get him to talk much about his war experiences. These words of his stick with me: “There is no glory in war. It is cruel and bloody. We all did terrible things.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 11, 2014 1:44 pm

    barry…….thank you…….
    at school we learn of battles but not the utter agony of war….the destruction of
    so much life and beauty…….the butterfly cannot fly fast enough……

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