I’m writing this knowing I run the risk of triggering further abuse by even mentioning the words “Remembrance” and “Day” in the same sentence — apparently there are some who feel that my repugnant peace-loving commie-nazi-hippy opinions somehow soil the nobility of Remembrance Day and that I should be beaten for holding them. That’s not hyperbole: my previous post, “Poppies”, actually triggered a threat from one anonymous poster to “kick my head in” if he (I assume it was a he) ever “caught my faggot ass” wearing a white poppy. (Nobody likes being threatened with violence but I’m actually upset that, since I stated at the end of my post that I didn’t think I could wear a white poppy either, it means the threatener didn’t bother to read what I actually wrote.) I also got a fair bit of criticism from real people — by which I mean people who actually had the courage and integrity to sign their names and/or Facebook account to their commentary — stating that doing anything but wearing a red poppy is “disrespectful and disgraceful.”
And you know what? I understand that opinion. I really do. I disagree with it, I think it’s asinine and oversimplified, but I know where it’s coming from: The original intention of the red poppy was a nonpartisan symbol intended to eulogize and honour all those on the Allied side who gave their lives during the First World War. I have no doubt that was a profoundly sincere impulse by the survivors: an entire generation of European men were killed, wounded, and deeply traumatized by an utterly pointless conflict foisted on them by corrupt governments and coordinated by generals who clearly had no idea how to cope with mechanized slaughter and who got 10 million soldiers killed trying to sort it out — and that total doesn’t include 7 million civilians dead nor 20 million wounded (nor does it include the millions of deaths from the Spanish Flu epidemic caused by the war.)
I cannot even imagine the pain of living through the deaths of roughly 1% of the entire human species — and knowing that those deaths occurred for no logical reason beyond national pride and a stubborn refusal to change course. I have no doubt that trauma is why our Remembrance Day ceremonies are so strongly rooted in the First World War, despite that fact that there are no more surviving veterans of that conflict.
The poppy was later expanded as a symbol for those who fought in the Second World War, a conflict which was at least morally unambiguous for the Allies… although far more costly (it is estimated that 3% of the entire human species perished in that war). A lot of the current attitude of “my country, right or wrong” stems from the Allied victory in WW2, rooted in the justifiable pride at the tremendous victory achieved for humanity after appalling cost. (My attitude about the Second World War is best summarized by President Jimmy Carter’s famous statement: “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good.“)
The poppy was then expanded as a universal symbol to all other conflicts following the Second World War. And it’s a damned good symbol: simple, yet universally iconic (at least in Commonwealth nations: the French and their former colonies use the bleuet de France as a comparable symbol.) I respect the fact that the poppy has come to mean so much and despite accusations that by speaking my mind I’m somehow disrespecting and disgracing veterans, the poppy means that much to me.
Do I think that war is wrong? Yes. The First World War was sheer madness, incompetence and stupidity on a monstrous scale… and the “resolution” of that conflict clearly sowed the seeds of the Second World War, which was a crime against humanity on a level which had never been seen before and hopefully will never be seen again. And the resolution of the Second World War sowed the seeds of the Cold War and very nearly the Third World War: a global nuclear conflict which somehow we managed to avoid. I like to think — or maybe just hope — that the Third World War was avoided because people, humanity, finally learned the lessons of the first two World Wars and began working for peace. There have been fits and starts, wrong turns and even outright mistakes, but we’re trying.
Despite recent accusations to the contrary, I do not hate soldiers, and I do not hate veterans. I know left-wingers who do, I’m sorry to say, people who smugly refer to soldiers as “baby-killers” and who despise the men and women who wear the uniform: They’re a small minority in the anti-war and social justice movements, but I can’t claim they don’t exist. In the past even I’ve been hassled by certain left-wingers for wearing a red poppy, which was seen as “giving blanket support to the government’s neo-colonial agenda”… an attitude I regard as being just as asinine and oversimplified as the “my country right or wrong” military fetishism which so annoys me about the right.
But worse than the outright hostility, in many ways, is the left-wing attitude of mild pity for serving soldiers, which unfortunately isn’t a minority opinion. It’s pretty pervasive in the anti-war crowd. At its most innocuous there’s the unstated assumption that a soldier could have done something better with their lives if only they’d been given a chance; it ranges all the way up to outright contempt for the intelligence of military people, sort of a “well, they can’t know any better, can they?” condescension which just sets my teeth on edge.
One of the major advantages of being in the SCA, especially coming from that left-wing activist background, is that I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a lot of people in the Canadian Armed Forces. Some of them are currently serving, more of them are veterans (some wartime, some peacetime.) All of them are proud of their service, and rightly so. All of them chose — deliberately and with eyes wide open — to serve in the military. Any “they don’t know any better” illusions I might have harboured were very quickly dissolved: A serviceman thinks long and hard about the moral choice involved about being in the military, about the possibility they may die… and about the possibility that they may have to kill. They’ve made a conscious and honest decision to serve their country despite the possibility of killing and dying. It’s a decision that I think we have to respect, even if we might not agree with it.
I don’t hate soldiers, but I do hate war. I hate that people I know — good people, people with families — have gone to Afghanistan to fight and suffer and be wounded and even die for no better reason than our government wanted to curry favour with the United States immediately after 9/11. I hate that… and I especially hate that their sacrifice wasn’t even strictly necessary, or even properly discussed: You can dress the decade-long Canadian mission up with various excuses and slogans, and you can point to the efforts made to actually help the Afghan people (and those were admirable) but you cannot deny the simple fact that we helped invade and occupy a foreign nation simply because in September 2001 the United States under President George W. Bush was going to stomp the shit out of any nation it viewed as an enemy, and Canada’s Liberal government of the day wanted to make it very clear which side we were on (as though it wouldn’t have been clear already.)
But most of all, I hate that those people have come home, some of them wounded in mind and body, and been abandoned by the government of the country they chose to serve. Which is (one more time) why I’m so affronted by the political co-opting of the poppy as a symbol. It’s supposed to be non-partisan, but since 9/11 it’s been used — just as the yellow ribbon campaign and the universal and unquestioning sloganeering of “Support Our Troops” — as a highly politicized tool to squelch any criticism of government policy, particularly Canadian involvement in the occupation of Afghanistan. One of my critics on Facebook demanded that in any discussion of the poppy I should “keep partisan and anti-war politics out of it.” I’d love to… but I can’t. I didn’t introduce those politics into it, I’m simply refusing to turn a blind eye to those that have.
But then, I’ve never really mastered the art of turning a blind eye: it’s one of the reasons I spend so much time utterly furious. And it’s one of the reasons that I became — and still am — an activist. I’m not going to go down to the ceremonies and make an attention-whoring scene (which, if you read my previous post, was my objection to that Ottawa pacifist group) because I feel that would be disrespectful to veterans. But neither am I going to enable — even passively — a government which abuses and neglects veterans and then hypocritically wears a symbol intended to honour them. (And just for the record, the suggestion made by several commenters that I should wear a poppy just because “that’s what you’re supposed to do” is exactly the attitude which has allowed the co-opting of the poppy as a symbol for political reasons.)
That’s a personal choice, and a personal decision. At no point in any of my previous blog posts on this subject did I advocate that other people should make the same choice — I simply explained my opinions on the subject. If that explanation leads others to make a similar decision, fine. If it doesn’t, I don’t care all that much: I’m not trying to start a movement or undermine Remembrance Day. Hell, I’m not even trying to shame our politicians into living up to their obligations to veterans (although they should be ashamed, but once again, personal opinion) I’m clarifying my position on the matter to anyone who chooses to read my blog… and I’m also clarifying it to myself.
I have made a commitment to building a world of peace and prosperity, a world where soldiers will no longer be necessary, and I believe it is possible to work for a world without soldiers without hating the soldiers in our world. I maintain no illusions about the enormity of that task or the likelihood of achieving it occurring during my lifetime… or the lifetimes of my children, or even theirs. But it is possible, and I think I owe it — we all owe it — to the tens of millions of dead and wounded over the last hundred years to try and make sure that their sacrifices will never be required again.