I do not wear a poppy

November 11, 2010

This week she’s taken the word “remember” as a new favourite. It’s on your lips, unprompted. You seem satisfied to coax me into saying it too… and then it’s there again a little later.

I don’t think I’ve read her the word from any book.
Where did it come from?
Did she notice the old man offering plastic poppies from a donation-box?

To my delight, she’s chosen such a word which is a bit abstract, certainly mysterious…   and at this time of year, impressively ambiguous.

She will notice, someday, that I do not wear a poppy.
Don’t think that I consider memory as unimportant. Rather I’ve lost the ability to remember what, and the way, I was taught.

The somber mood of Remembrance Day has always been a veneer, glossing — but never really concealing — an occasion to pay homage to the military dead, to look up to the flag, to reinforce a distorted version of the past.  I wasn’t always bothered by the rhetoric at the cenotaph… I can’t stomach it any more.

Remember that November 11th was created to commemorate the ending of the First World War (1914-1918). Most of our Cenotaphs — at which we are urged to gather — were erected in mark the same conflict.  At the time, it known as the “Great War”. It may have been great — in sense of enormous or  astounding) but was nothing to be proud of.

In that horrible decade, the “world” (essentially Europe and its colonial possessions) stumbled -perhaps hurled- themselves into a pointless bloodbath. You can spend an eon studying and you will learn about causes, but there is no purpose to be found.
The fighting was lead by officers who were incompetent and horrifyingly callous. Befuddled by the newly invented machine-gun, officers sent wide lines of men marching to their deaths. Enemies (especially on the Western Front) spent most of those four years in a muddy stalemate… terrorizing each other with ceaseless artillery barrage and trying to figure out innovative tactics of slaughter.
Conscripts were supplemented with hundreds of thousands of volunteers. These men were whipped up with a suite of lies.  Millions of men temporarily emboldened with blind patriotism, tragic gullibility and naivety marched obediently off to hell.

There were 10,000,000 military deaths during the “Great War”… (including 65,000 Canadians)

When the war ended, almost nothing had been accomplished. A few colonies changed hands — one pair of greedy hands for another and similarly, the maps of the Balkans and the Middle East were redrawn with lines which are still causing conflict. The equally guilty forced Germany to accept the blame for starting the war… and punished it by slicing into its territory and imposing reparations and restrictions. This settlement lead to the war resuming about twenty years later… this time called “the Second World War”, even more bloody than the first.

Now look at the inscriptions of the average cenotaph. A small handful of quite typical examples:

“The Glorious Dead”  (London, England — 1920)

“Erected in commemoration of the men and women of this city who died on the field of honour in war that Canada might maintain her heritage of freedom”.   (Port Arthur, Ontario — 1925)

“In glorious memory of those of this City and District, who, at the call of King and Country, adventured forth and gave their all for the cause of Right and Freedom, 1914-1918.”   (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan — 1929)

These are monuments of which we should be embarassed.

Additional wars — and their own mythologies — have been added to the cenotaphs since they were built.  Each of these — WW2, Korea and (now) Afghanistan — should not be times to be remembered without their own shame. Offense left for another day.

The ceremonial rhetoric with which I grew up (I hope, but doubt, that you’ll be any more fortunate) was in tune. From the webpage of the Royal Canadian Legion (the veteran’s organization which dominates what is said on Nov 11th) explains that Remembrance Day should be  “the one distinct observance that the nation pay tribute to those “who gave their lives that freedom might prevail”.

Let’s leave the crap of glory and freedom behind.
Remember that Nov11th is dedicated to the memory of only the military dead, and further, only those who died wearing the right uniform. Somber reflection is not offered to those — conscripts and fools — who were killed fighting for the other side.  Neither is it offered to the millions of civilians who were killed… by “accident”, out of negligence, or entirely deliberately.

4,000,000 died fighting on the other side of WW1.
WW1 caused the death of at least 7,000,000 civilians.
WW2 caused the deaths of about 50,000,000 civilians
Korea caused the deaths of at least 2,000,000 civilians
So far, an estimated 15,000 to 35,000 civilians have died as a result of the (latest) Afghan war.

I must stop myself from going on and on… but just one last point:

I bristle at occasions which push us towards prescribed ritual, attitude and perspective. Dissent is never simple, but on days like Nov11th it is cast as the height of disrespect.
There is no place for me at a cenotaph. Their words make my angry.
I know that I am likely to offend… especially those of my Grandmother’s generation (I can’t rid my memory of  her facial expression). Those who lived through something like the world wars do not want to be confronted with someone who is not grateful for their sacrifice.
I can be somber while wondering why so many went to their deaths believing the lies they were fed.
I can be somber while wondering what foolish policies led to conflict beginning in the first place.
I can be somber while struggling to imagine how terrible war is.
I can be somber thinking about occasions when violence is right… and regretting that it’s so difficult to find any such thing in Canada’s history.


Finally, to be fair… there do exist cenotaph inscriptions which do not make me cringe.  The words on the cenotaph in Brantford Ontario (1923)  reads:

“Let those who come after
see to it that their names
be not forgotten”.

Sometimes vagueness is the best we can do.


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