“Soldiers and sailors and airmen, tooFought for us across the sea;Brave and unselfish, strong and true,Keeping Canada free!I’ll wear a poppy on Remembrance DayTo show I’m proud of what they did for me…”We sang that song in sixth grade, before I had any real idea how ironic it was. You see, both branches of my family were on the “wrong” side of the two World Wars, being Germans (the one in northern Germany, the other in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia). My family was NOT Canadian at the time, and freedom? Under Hitler? Pah. At best, non-Jewish Germans only thought they were free, or that they were fighting for their freedom (or whatever other bogus “noble” cause was in vogue). If there was one thing most Germans knew full well, it was that the war was NOT about anybody’s freedom. It was a farce, a dirty joke, for anyone to claim that it had to do with that. I didn’t know that at the time; I just sang along in the school assembly, blithe and unquestioning, when directed to do so.And of course, I knew nothing about how the town of Kitchener, Ontario–home to one of Canada’s largest ethnic-German populations–used to be called Berlin. Or about how Japanese Canadians were interned, for no reason other than being Japanese…and Canadian. If I had known those things, the whole “freedom” meme would have been easier for me to question. But of course they don’t teach you things like that in Grade 6!Seven years later, and several decades wiser, I went on to win second place in the provincial division of the Royal Canadian Legion essay contest, this time acknowledging my ironies, lamenting the futility of war, and adding that the purpose of war memorials should not be to glorify war, but to remind us not to make more of them. I’m still proud of that essay, which was what helped me to sort my mind out about war, and come down on the side of peace. My basic conclusion still stands. And that was how I made my peace with the poppy. Now I’m of two minds about wearing it again. This letter to the editors makes a cogent case for not wearing it:
Meanwhile, a British campaign resurrects an old idea, one that might just finally gain some traction in the age of the Internets, when buried history gets dug up again and dusted off:
World War I, of course, is not the only war in which Canadians fought and died, but the “they died to make us free” model seems equally inappropriate to Canadian participation in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the (so-called) Gulf War. World War II is a different matter – Hitler and Nazism were obvious evils which had to be eradicated. Even granting this, there are moral ambiguities associated with that war which we still have difficulty acknowledging.In 1992, for instance, Brian and Terence McKenna made a documentary (The Valour and the Horror) which looked carefully at the bombing of German cities by Canadian aircrews. Although careful to praise the personal valour of individual airmen, the McKenna brothers pointed out that these bombs rarely hit military targets but did kill thousands of civilians.Furthermore, they noted, the Allied command knew perfectly well that these bombs were missing military targets and killing civilians but continued the raids nevertheless, as a way of demoralizing hostile populations. Finally, the documentary suggested these mass killings contributed little if anything to winning the war. There was nothing new in any of this. Academic historians had been saying similar things for years – but nobody listens to academics. A documentary on the CBC was another matter.The response to the McKenna brothers was electric. Although many veterans were glad someone had finally had the courage to challenge the official version of history, other veterans and many veterans groups throughout Canada uttered squeals of rage. They used their influence to spark a Senate investigation and the CBC was pressured (with some success) to define the documentary a “docudrama.” In other words, it was fiction not history – in contrast of course to the sanitized version of history promoted by veterans organizations. It was a disgraceful episode in recent Canadian history.If we want the future to be a better place, we must confront the horrors of the past, even if that includes horrors for which Canada (or the United States or Great Britain or any of the other official good guys) were responsible – and that means challenging all sanitized versions of history, even those that come masked beneath the emotionally charged image of a blood-red poppy.
And here’s an irony: The same Royal Canadian Legion who saw merit in my ambivalent essay, and who also claim with a straight face that the poppy represents those who died for our freedom…have tried to ban the free-speech gesture that is the white poppy! Remind me of what all that warring and dying was for, again?I would love to wear a white poppy. I think it’s the perfect gesture: Honor the dead, by speaking for life and peace. But I live in a fairly conservative town, where the white poppy campaign has yet to reach. I can’t see our Royal Canadian Legion branch selling them anytime soon; their official position is apparently still stuck somewhere around the same level as that sixth-grade jingle. And I’m not the kind of person who stands on street corners selling things, braving ignorant people’s abuses alone. So here I am again, stuck on the horns of the same old dilemma: Peace or poppies? How about peace AND poppies? Sigh.Guess I’ll throw some coins in the box and fish out the old red poppy yet again…and pin a peace button right next to it, just so people know why I’m really wearing that thing. And if anyone wants to argue that it’s an insult, I’ll point to both and remind them that we peaceniks fight this fight so their loved ones don’t have to go die for someone else’s arrogance all over again.
The idea of decoupling Armistice Day , the red poppy and later Remembrance Day from their military culture dates back to 1926, just a few years after the British Legion was persuaded to try using the red poppy as a fundraising tool in Britain.A member of the No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint ‘No More War’ in the centre of the red poppies instead of ‘Haig Fund’ and failing this pacifists should make their own flowers.The details of any discussion with the British Legion are unknown but as the centre of the red poppy displayed the ‘Haig Fund’ imprint until 1994 it was clearly not successful. A few years later the idea was again discussed by the Co-operative Women’s Guild who in 1933 produced the first white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day (later called Remembrance Day). The Guild stressed that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War – a war in which many of the women lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers. The following year the newly founded Peace Pledge Union joined the CWG in the distribution of the poppies and later took over their annual promotion