Two veterans get the last words

A Connecticut reader who describes himself as a paratroop veteran from the Korean War era who was lucky to be assigned to Germany, “rather than that slaughter house of Korea,” writes:

I find this convention that has developed of saying, “thank you for your service” off-putting. It immediately shuts the door.  Nothing more to say except, “Thank you.” Puts us in a box. You will never hear veterans speak to each other this way.

Besides, the dirty little secret is most of us had the time of our lives. It was great fun.

Another reader sends along this message from his brother, a Vietnam vet. It originally appeared on the very active Facebook page of the Savannah, Georgia, chapter of Veterans for Peace, a veterans organization that promotes public awareness of the costs of war, and seeks to restrain governments from waging it.

There is no glory in war, no honor in victory. Every soldier is not a hero. Being a veteran I hope that one day youth will lay down their weapons, all youth across the face of the earth and refuse to fight the wars of old men. The rich make the wars the poor fight so the rich can become more rich. If war was not profitable there would be no war.

If you really want to honor a veteran, truly honor those who have served, do not thank us for our service, remove the ribbons from your cars, and promise all those who suffered and died and those who continue to suffer that no more veterans will be made. You see, I am a Viet Nam veteran from 1969-1971. In many ways I am still there. We carry it forever. It may dim but it is always there.

So, as a veteran, I beg you do not send your sons, your daughters, you spouses, your brothers or sisters off to die in someone else’s war. I close my eyes and look upon those horrors that we committed and those done to us by our own government. Hug your children, your loved ones and hold them near. Don’t let them die alone in some faraway country.

When you hear the drums of war and see the flags unfurl and the politicians making their speeches, grab you loved ones and say no more. Then you may say you have truly honored a veteran.

Remembrance Day reflections – with updates

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.

poppy (1) 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:

  1. Kill 10 million boys pointlessly.
  2. Honour pointlessly killed boys with anti-war Remembrance Day ceremonies.
  3. Morph “honouring pointlessly killed boys” into “honouring veterans.”
  4. Militarize Remembrance Day ceremonies.
  5. Label those opposed to war as anti-veteran.
  6. Anti-veteran = anti-troop = unpatriotic.
  7. 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.

HRM’s abuse of power — feedback

Lots of reader mail on HRM’s use of force to evict Occupy Nova Scotia protesters camped out on the grassy strip known as Victoria Park.  To start with, Juanita Mckenzie (writing on Facebook):

I think it was very distasteful to do this on Remembrance Day… I think the Halifax powers that be should be ashamed of themselves. If our youth don’t protest for their future what is the future going to have for them. I’m sorry I may not know exactly all the facts of the Protesters, but they were respectful of the veterans. They should have been given at least that respect back. The Powers that Be knew when they were talking to the protesters that they were planning their attack, and that is totally disgraceful and dishonest bargaining in my books. Shame on Mayor Kelly and his thugs.

C. Llyod disagreed:

The HRM did absolutely the right thing – evicting these campers – they were tolerated for too long. Let’s see now if they can actually act like protesters – or maybe go one step further and act responsibly and contribute to society, get a job, a useful education or even run for mayor.

So did Mark Pearl:

Disappointed to read today’s commentary. You fail to consider all users of public space. Protesting is one thing and camping is another.

John Chesal struck a common theme among those who upset over Mayor Kelly’s action:

What galls me most about this sorry situation is the duplicity shown by the Mayor in “negotiating” with the protestors. He led them to believe they would be permitted to protest, if they would leave Grand Parade in time for Remembrance Day ceremonies. To their credit, they agreed. It now seems the Mayor had no interest in allowing the protest to continue, he just wanted to move them to a less prominent place, so he could sneak up behind them with his police force and do what he’d intended all along. This guy has no honour. His word means nothing. We now see the kind of treatment people can expect when dealing with this snivelling backstabber. It’s no wonder he holds council meetings in secret. That way, he can keep his electorate from seeing him as he really is.

A journalist friend sounds the same note:

I was glad to see Dan Arsenault press the mayor on the question of whether or not he had tricked the Occupy folks by getting them to leave the Grand Parade for the Remembrance Day ceremonies. Kelly stuck to his key message, namely that Council had made the decision Tuesday night. I presume that means “I let them think they could come back, but Council made me renege.”

Given that no one reported such a decision after Council’s Tuesday meeting, it must have been made in camera. Section 19 of Halifax’s charter allows secret meetings on matters of “public security” or to “give direction to staff.” The topics discussed are to be made public, but not the details. Public security is not defined. I also note that the Occupy people were arrested for obstruction of justice rather than violation of a bylaw.

So. It seems to me that if the demonstrators are to held accountable for violating a bylaw, His Worship and company should be accountable for their devious approach to public business.

Or is it just me?

It’s not just him. Roberta Clair writes:

Bravo Contrarian. Thank you for this article, it’s a nice start to my day.

Jay McNeil, writing on Facebook

I think the entire think has been botched from the get-go.

It was a sad day when the veterans had to go sit in a tent to negotiate with the protesters about them leaving for the Remembrance Day Service. The negotiation was great to see, but I think the protesters could have shown some more respect and met somewhere else. And I think it’s a sad day when veterans who fought to keep us free watch a peaceful assembly end in violence and arrests. The failure for officials to deal with this properly isn’t just upsetting for those who were protesting, and those who supported them. It’s disappointing, I’m sure, to the soldiers who were willing to give their lives, if need be, so that things could be done differently here.

Another journalist friend on Facebook:

Actually, one of the most inspiring elements of the story, if you ask me, was the relationship that developed between the veterans and the protesters. From the very beginning, the head of the Legion was commenting to the media about what well spoken, and (in her words) well brought up young people the activists were. The veterans offered to meet them in that tent as a sign of good will. That was their choice, and I not only respect that, I honour it. Yesterday, the protesters asked if they could lay a wreath at the service. They were given the honor of doing so… and accompanied by a veteran who volunteered to walk up with them.

A veteran speaks out against grief porn – (ctd.)

Contrarian reader RM thinks our post crossed the line:

[T]his commentary was in poor taste. Yes, this veteran has every right to comment, but I think it is more important to respect the views of the the family of the fallen soldier. Let us make our comments without seeming to criticize the wishes of the family.
Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that our link to CBC-Cape Breton reporter Bobby Nock’s interview was broken, and thanks to website wizard Mike Targett for fixing it while Contrarian was helplessly sans Internet over the far Northern Atlantic.

In the service of Canada – updated

The Globe’s Michael Valpy has a thoughtful piece on the burgeoning interest in Remembrance Day commemorations, especially among young people. The graphic below accompanies the article.

Canadian War Dead-s

While researching his namesake, Rev. Miles Tompkins, a First World War army chaplain, Contrarian reader Miles Tompkins came upon some sobering numbers:

The waste of human life hit Cape Breton and the Diocese of Antigonish very hard. The diocese runs from Our Lady of Lourdes in Stellarton to the tip of Cape Breton, and even included the Italian Mission and a Syrian Parish in Cape Breton. Well over 500 boys from this diocese were killed in WW1, with 1500  suffering horrific injuries such as gas, etc. In Glace Bay alone, 29 were killed and 49 wounded. What a blow to the area.