No sooner did I write that two veterans would get the last word on the Remembrance Day poppies discussion, than a Facebook message arrived from my friend Walter Van Veen, whose teenage father spent the war hiding in a secret compartment in an Amsterdam flat.
A Jewish family shared the compartment. Facing starvation, they gave themselves up a few weeks before the end of the war—and were killed. Walter’s father held out and survived.
You know my take on this [the media firestorm over white poppies being handed out at the National War Memorial]. This is one fairly cynical narrow view based on how some people and agencies manipulate Remembrance Day.
War stinks and we all know it, so Remembrance Day is not to glorify war, but to remember those who stood and counted themselves in when they had to be.
There is no doubt that I would not be alive today except for Canadian soldiers. My mother continues to say, at 88, that the day the Canadian soldiers entered Amsterdam in 1945 was the best day in her life.
Why anyone would sail across the ocean, land on the beaches of Normandy in a hail of bullets, walk halfway across Europe in the heat and the cold to save a nation of people that they didn’t even know is beyond the imagination of most Dutch people.
So let’s remember the sacrifices of those young Canadians and thank them. We don’t have to like war to do that.”
Who can argue with that?
Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the United States, where right-wing scoundrels turned patriotic symbols into political cudgels, left me with a lifelong aversion to flags, ribbons, lapel pins, and other obligatory trappings of national fealty. When I moved to Canada, this aversion morphed into a disinclination to wear poppies.
As best I can tell, most Canadians see the poppy as a neutral symbol of respect for veterans. Social pressure to wear it is strong. Acquaintances and strangers alike view my failure to fall in step as inexplicable, disrespectful, and distasteful. I regret this. After years of attempts to explain my position, I mostly avoid the conversation today, and I regret that, too. I can only offer the hope that the occasional outlier’s refusal to adopt mandatory, state-sanctioned idolatry is healthy for democracy.
In a Facebook post this morning, Coast journalist Tim Bousquet, who also grew up in the US, offered a succinct expression of one of my reasons for eschewing the opium flower:
- Kill 10 million boys pointlessly.
- Honour pointlessly killed boys with anti-war Remembrance Day ceremonies.
- Morph “honouring pointlessly killed boys” into “honouring veterans.”
- Militarize Remembrance Day ceremonies.
- Label those opposed to war as anti-veteran.
- Anti-veteran = anti-troop = unpatriotic.
- More war.
(For the record, Bousquet included an eighth point: 8. Profit! I don’t know that he’s wrong about that, but it’s not central to my own allergic reaction to tendentious heraldry.)
[UPDATE] Scott Taylor has a gutsy column on bullying around the poppy in today’s Herald
[UPDATE 2] Contrarian reader Greg Marshall writes:
I wear a poppy religiously, to the point that, thanks to the crappy pins they use on them, I think I have bought half-a-dozen this year. It is not because of social pressure, but because I grew up doing it, and it feels right. My family was a veteran’s family, and most of my parents’ friends were vets as well. They were lucky, since few of them had been at the “sharp end,” and did not have to wear the emotional effects of combat. That was for my high-school physics teacher, who did a tour on Halifaxes with 6 Group, and was a shadow of a man.
I don’t share all your views on this issue, but I certainly understand and sympathize with them, and Bousquet’s points are not without merit. I wish they were not. I can’t put on the poppy without thinking of the waste of life these wars have caused, and the utter pointlessness of it.
[UPDATE 3] My old Daily News colleague Ryan Van Horne writes:
In attempting to explain why he doesn’t wear a poppy, Tim Bousquet takes the worst possible reasons one could have for wearing one and assumes that everybody wears them only for those reasons.
World War 1 was a colossal waste of life and a pointless war. World War 2, while also a colossal waste of life, at least served a purpose for fighting back against tyranny. War is not a glorious endeavour, but a sometimes necessary evil.
One of the things that soldiers fought and died for was the freedom that you, Tim, and I enjoy to choose to wear a poppy and to write columns and blog posts without fear of retribution. If you eschew the poppy because it is against your principles, I hope that you and Tim at least recognize that young men died in a war to preserve that freedom.
I’ve never fought in a war and I don’t know any veterans, but I have three sons who are the same age as many of the young men who went off to fight in World War 2. I know that a generation made a huge sacrifice and I appreciate that. That is why I wear a poppy and always will.
[UPDATE 4] Debra Forsyth-Smith writes:
As someone who lived in the U.S. for some years, I certainly applaud your point of view on many symbolic gestures which in reality are confusing at best and meaningless at worst.
But jingoism is not the same as respect and remembrance of sacrifice. It is in this spirit I wear the poppy. In the very same spirit, I respect your decision not to.
[UPDATE 5] Robert Collins writes:
I respect your opinion on wearing, or not wearing, the poppy, as I am sure many veterans do as well. I try to wear one but often lose it or don’t have money with me when I see them available, or I hand mine to someone else who “needs” it for a particular situation.
Regardless, it is a personal decision and a personal choice. The problem that I have with your position (and Tim’s) is that it is as political as the very reason you state for not wearing it. It is the Yin to the Yang in the argument. The poppy is not political. It is very simple. It is to remind us of individuals who died, often in tragic, horrible, and often very lonely situations. Some of them were in that situation knowing full well why. Some were there because they were lied to and some didn’t understand why they were there but were told it was the right thing to do.
I see it as being similar to the ceremony in Berwick for Harley Lawrence. No one was there to make a statement about mental health or homelessness or anything else. They were there simply to honor a fellow human being who died in a tragic, horrible and very lonely situation.
It is too easy for us today to assume ulterior motives and become cynical about everything around us. For me, the poppy is a sanctuary from that to a simple and basic compassion for another person’s sacrifice and loss. It can be very liberating and comforting if you allow it to take you there, but don’t feel you have to let it.