I'll Be Wearing A Poppy This Year
I have always felt uneasy about Remembrance Day. To its credit, it doesn't demand you to spend vast amounts of money to maintain respect. You don't have to buy Remembrance Day presents or heart-shaped boxes of chocolates or flowers and a card for your secretary "to show you care." While Hallmark might well sell Remembrance Day cards, it probably doesn't sell many. All Remembrance Day asks of us is that we donate some money to a veteran in the Royal Canadian Legion, that we get a cheap plastic poppy in return, and that we spend the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of each year thinking about war, and about the men and women who gave their lives to it. What's wrong with that?
For one thing, Remembrance Day is about war. War and I don't get along so well; I think that war is terribly sad and usually unnecessary. In any case, I would like to thing that war is usually unnecessary, but Remembrance Day does not seem to agree. Every Remembrance Day ceremony I have ever attended has asked me to "remember those who gave their lives for freedom." What if those people had not given up their lives? What if they had decided that war was a plot by the military-industrial complex to get the world out of its Great Depression? What if they had become "conscientious objectors" who, if I remember my Grade 10 History correctly, could opt out of military service? Would the Allies have lost World War II? Would we be remembering the men and women who gave their lives for the Third Reich instead?
The way I see it, World War II went on for seven long years -- from 1938 to 1945. I question how much Canada -- or any other country -- valued the lives of its men and women as the war raged on. I wonder how much their contributions had to do with ending the war, compared to the impact of the nuclear bomb. The historians might argue that Hitler's forces were weakening, that he had made a fatal mistake in Russia, and so on and so forth... but what about The Bomb? Would the war have ended the way it did if the Nazis had developed the fission bomb first? Would the Allies have won had World War II turned into a full scale nuclear war? Would there have been anything left to win?
I don't know the answer to these questions. Perhaps nobody does. Perhaps all this idle speculation is unimportant: A life lost is a life lost, and the many lives lost during the Second Great War -- and the wars that preceded and followed it -- are worth mourning for their own sake. I find it interesting, however, that we only remember the men and women who fought for the winning side, who "gave their lives for freedom." What about the others? What about the people who died in concentration camps? What about the Japanese-Canadians confined in Canada as possible war criminals? What about the civilians who lost their lives to gunfire and landmines and nuclear radiation? Indeed, what about the lives of the men and women who gave their lives to the Axis cause, the ones who fought and killed "our" soldiers?
Blasphemy! How could I even think of commemorating the enemy? They were Nazis.. bigots.. mass-murderers.. devils! They would have killed us all for not being Aryan enough. Our troops fought them so that we might be free -- that's why we have Remembrance Day in the first place!
But weren't they people, too? Didn't they sacrifice their lives for their country? Didn't they have family and friends and lives that they left behind in order to fight, lives that were cut short when they were hit by a heroic Allied bullet.. when they died of gangrenous wounds.. when they were bombed? How were they different from us? I'm not so sure that they were different. In fact, I think that we were all the same -- caught up in the jingoism of our times, urged to fight for the glory of our nations, for the greater good with God on our side, amen. We bought Victory Bonds and tended Victory gardens, and so did they. Our propaganda depicted young strapping lads ready to ward off the Nazi monsters, and I'm sure theirs did as well. We fought to end the horrors of racial persecution, of gas chambers and concentration camps, and they fought for racial purity and the strengthening of mankind. We saw them as monsters; they saw us as monsters. It's a lot easier to kill a monster than murder a fellow human being.
I'm not saying that the Axis forces was made up of nice guys, that the Allies were the true monsters, that we should have left Hitler to take over Europe and move to the New World, or even that the Bomb shouldn't have been dropped, that the men and women we remember on Remembrance Day should have stayed home. I am saying that war is all messed up, that everybody on every side did evil and -- to some degree -- was evil, and that there is something terribly wrong about calling our troops heroes and the people they murdered villains just because we happened to win.
But that's what Remembrance Day is all about, Charlie Brown. In any case, that's what I hear when I am told to remember our war dead, those brave men and women who gave their lives for freedom. I hear that same jingoism that suckered young men and women all over the world into thinking they would be fighting on God's side, that war was a grand adventure, that they would make their country proud of them, that they would not be pawns in a global chess game, pawns to be sacrificed in the water or the mud or in prisoner of war camps by generals who needed to win battles, not preserve young lives. I don't like that jingoism. I don't like being told that the people who fought were the heroes, that everybody else were just civilians or the enemy -- or deserters, or cowards. I don't like the thought of glorifying pawns. It makes me fear that one day we might be called upon to be chess pieces again.
Am I not forgetting something? Am I not forgetting that the slogan of Remembrance Day is "Lest we forget," that we should remember our mistakes so that we do not repeat them? Do I tune out the grave voice that says "Never again," that hopes for an end to all war? I do not forget these this; I dismiss them. They are empty sentiments. Remembrance Day tells us that we should not fight unnecessary wars, because war is awful and we don't want our citizens to die in awful ways. But when war becomes necessary -- because the Nazis are loose, or because our oil interests are at stake, or because we have to keep up with our NATO commitments -- then our country expects us to fight and die. Canada might judge "necessity" more strictly than other countries -- there is a reason that traitorous hippies who opposed the Vietnam war decided to come here -- but if Canada ever finds itself in a full-blown military conflict, sooner or later we will be expected to fight. I am convinced of that.
Furthermore, we like war. War is good for us -- so long as our own necks are not at stake -- because war is profitable. Whether intentionally or not, World War II helped end the Great Depression; it spurred the worldwide economy to new heights and led to the prosperous 1950s. Even today, the military spends oodles of money on "defence." It funds an enormous amount of cutting-edge research; a lot of current AI research is funded by US Army grants or DARPA. Selling weaponry to other countries is yet another way to increase the GDP; all the foreign oppression, terror and loss of life Canada funds is none of our concern until Canada gets caught red-handed. What was the Gulf War but a trade show to show off all the nifty new technology armies could use to kill people and destroy property? And let's not forget that both computers and the Internet are the children of war and the military: Computers were developed in order to crack encrypted messages, while the Internet was put together by DARPA. For all the destruction and misery it causes, why would we want an end to war?
For years, I refused to wear a poppy. I was happy to donate change to the Royal Canadian Legion, and I gratefully gave the minute of silence and reflection at 11:11am a ten minute raise, so that I could to think about war and wonder whether we could ever embrace peace. But I would not wear a poppy, because I do not believe in glorifying war and because I could see the disparity behind what we say on Remembrance Day and the way we profit from the miseries of war. I did not want to forget war, but neither did I want to applaud its participants.
At 11:10am this past Remembrance Day, I was in my office, working on an assignment. When I saw the time I stood up and walked into the hall so that I would not disturb my office mates. At 11:11am, I looked out a small window at the end of the hall, and I thought about war. I heard footsteps behind me, as people went about their business. I saw people walking and bicycling outside on the street. I wondered whether the people around me would be donating a moment or two of their time to reflect this Remembrance Day, whether any of us who live in peace can ever understand what war is all about. I thought about friends I met who had lived under persecution in their old countries, about my friend Hien who tried to escape Vietnam eleven times before succeeding and coming to Canada.
I realized that we were forgetting. Why did we need to remember? World War II was two generations ago. The people who lived through that war are mostly dead; who knows how many are left? Since then Canada has been involved in the Korean and Gulf Wars, and Canadian troops have been deployed in peacekeeping operations around the world, but we have not faced a Great War since 1945. That's something for which we should be thankful, but it makes it easier for us to forget what war is about.
We must never do that. Lord help us if we believe that war is a video game or action movie. Praise Platoon and Saving Private Ryan all you want; I do not think that they are war. I do not know exactly what war is about; I have shirked my responsibility to learn enough about war to understand my fear for it. That's my loss. If everybody is as ignorant as me, we are in a bad state. We are no more immune to the jingoism our grandparents' generation fell for -- just look at how many people wanted to volunteer for the Gulf War when it was announced. Just look at how advertising rules our lives, how our opinions are shaped by what we read and what we see on television. A person has to fight in order to think an original thought, in order to investigate different sides of a story. If a war was declared I do not think that we would uniformly support it -- some of us would oppose it as vehemently as the peaceniks opposed the Vietnam war -- but I think that the majority of us could be convinced that war is necessary, that we should support the war effort, that we should send young men and women to fight as pawns if necessary. We are a malleable people.
Maybe that's why we need Remembrance Day. If we can pause for two minutes a year to think, to try and understand what we can about what war is and why we should fear it, to try and understand why the people of the 1940s believed in war as surely as we think we believe in peace, to remember the victims of war: The civilians killed, the people lost in concentration camps, the people locked up in internment camps, the soldiers who fought and died no matter what they stood for -- than surely we would be better off than if we did not think of war at all. If I have to wear a cheap plastic poppy as a reminder that people should take those two minutes, then I will.
War has touched Remembrance Day, so there are no easy answers. When people see me wearing a poppy they may think that I support the glorification of war, that I am blind to the hypocrisy of Remembrance Day's sentiments. But if I don't wear a poppy I'm helping people forget, because unlike Grade School my university does not hold Remembrance Day assemblies. Nobody plays "Taps" over the P.A. system, and nobody reads "On Flanders Fields." It's our job to remember; nobody is going to do it for us. I think that remembering war -- and reminding others to remember war -- is important enough that I am willing to risk being misunderstood for wearing a poppy this year.