Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What are we fighting for?

Reader Mike brought to my attention last week the brewing controversy over white poppies this Remembrance Day.

For those outside of Canada and the UK, Remembrance Day is our day of memoriam for war dead. Originally mourning those lost in World War One, it has since expanded to become a day of remembrance and thanks to veterans of all conflicts. As a show of support, most people purchase a red plastic poppy from the Royal Canadian Legion, and wear it on the days leading up to the ceremonies on November 11.

image from cbc.ca
Commemorating the ceasing of "That War to End All Wars" on November 11, 1918, this day has always had two public purposes: honouring sacrifice and hoping for peace.

The two have not always been easy allies. Too much focus on epic heroism, and you risk romanticizing war. But at the same time, anti-war rhetoric is sometimes perceived as an insult to veterans, and what they believed in strongly enough to kill and die for. Go to any school Remembrance Day ceremony, and you'll see the balancing act.

Entering into this fray is the White Poppy Campaign. Although it's hardly new.

image from vowpeace.org

According to the emblem's proponents, Voice of Women (VOW) for Peace:

"Back in 1933, the Women's Co-operative Guild in England chose to wear white poppies to symbolize their commitment to work for peace and end their acquiescence to militarism. The Guild stressed that the white poppy was in no way intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War, but that it was a 'pledge to peace that war must not happen again'. Indeed, many of the women had lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers."

This year, VOW plan to distribute the white poppies in Ottawa for the national memorial event, and lay a white poppy wreath on the War Memorial. They've been doing it for two years. But this time, it has sparked a war of words.

"The red Legion poppy, in my opinion, represents the nostalgia and romanticizing of war," said Ian Harvey, an activist in the Ottawa White Poppy Coalition. "We should remember that you don't have to go to war to get peace."

But Jim Ross, president of the Legion's P.E.I. provincial command and a former lieutenant-commander in the Canadian Navy, said the Legion owns the rights to the poppy symbol, and the national office will most likely ask many of the various activist groups to stop the white-poppy campaign.

"The red poppies are not political statements and the Legion doesn't have any political positions. The poppies are simply a symbol of remembrance. Nothing more," Mr. Ross said. "It seems to me that the people who usually distribute these [white] poppies and do these sort of things have never spent a day in their life in the service of their country."

Now the Legion is threatening court action to prevent white poppies from turning up at the event, based on intellectual property law.

But who really owns the poppy symbol? You can ask them, but they won't answer.

The whole thing started with Canadian soldier/poet John McCrae's verse to a fallen comrade in the First World War:

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.

The symbol was taken up after the war as a memorial, and spread throughout the commonwealth. But while the poem is clear in its call to arms, the mood after Armistice was very much the opposite. The war had been so horrible that a demand for pacifism and isolationism guided many countries' foreign policies for the next two decades. Even as Germany rearmed and invaded neighbouring countries under a terrifying new leadership, England appeased and America stayed out of it as long as possible.

War led to committed pacifism. Committed pacifism led to war. And where are we now?

Oh yeah, red and white poppies. Considering that the best we can do to prevent war is to improve communications, really listen to each other, and try not to draw up sides and start blindly hating on our enemies, I really hope that both sides of this conflict will tone down the rhetoric and respect each other's points of view. Nobody wants to prevent war more than a person who has lived through conflict. Unless it's the parent of a child who will hopefully never see it.

This is Canada. We have room for all kinds of poppies here.

Can't we all just try to get along?

My sincere thanks to all those who have served, and all those who work for peace.


  1. This was a lovely post Tom. I, for one, am happy about the white vs. red controversy (stay with me here) because at least it has helped to promote a discourse about things relating to war that we should be discussing openly, especially now that the percentage of the population who has lived during war-times is dwindling.

    I've never believed myself that Remembrance Day was meant to romanticize war... as a kid, our Remembrance day assemblies tended to be full of stark imagery of the horrors of war.

    Personally, although I'm not against it per se, I dont' much see the point of the white poppy, for the sheer fact that I already associate those things it's supposed to represent with the red.

  2. Ditto... what the Goddess of Pickles said.

  3. One does not question the pickle goddess.

  4. I'm not wearing a white or a red poppy. I wish there were another way to demonstrate my appreciation to vets and my hopes for future peace.

    I'd love to wear a red poppy for our veterans, but I can't stomach supporting the Royal Canadian Legion. The Legion's claim to be "apolitical" is laughable -- they're the organization that fought anti-smoking laws in the 1990s, tried to suppress the CBC Valour and the Horror documentary, banned their own members from wearing turbans on premises (since reversed), and forced the War Museum to censor historically-accurate displays. The Legion is still one of the stronger political lobby groups in Canada, and it has exclusive rights to distribute the red poppy -- I don't want to be a part of their annual fundraising effort.

    I'd love to wear a white poppy, but I have friends and family members serving who -- thanks partly to Legion propaganda -- might mistake that for an attack on them and all they've done for us. I'm too grateful to them to risk causing any hurt.

    So what's left? Maybe I'll send some money to a charity that helps vets instead. No one will see it on my lapel, but true charity should be anonymous anyway.

  5. Very well-said, David.

    I am wearing a red poppy, even though I have the same issues with the Legion as a political lobby group as you do.

    I wear the red one to give my moral support the local halls. In the generations before PTSD diagnosis and treatment, they functioned as support groups for veterans. Some WWII vets found that the only people who truly understood them and could give them the companionship they needed were their comrades in arms. That's a big deal.