The year that I stopped feeling comfortable wearing a poppy was 2001. My change in attitude towards the poppy had everything to do with the “Post 9/11” political drama playing out under George Bush. It might have also had everything to do with reaching a certain level of maturity which solidified my political sympathies.
Immediately after 9/11, like everyone else, I felt shocked that the US had been attacked. I was amazed that such a thing had happened in my lifetime. It took, however, maybe two days (tops) before I started returning to my regular sentiment about the United States: serves them right.
Now, lest there be some poor survivor or family of a victim reading this, I’m not saying “serves the people within the tower right”, because it doesn’t, and yes, it was very tragic for people involved. I’m saying “serves the United States right” because of the way that they have been bullying around in the world arena. Conversely, the media’s sentiment on the attacks was “Everything changes now” about the rolling-back of rights in the United States (and, yes, up here in Canada too, for wherever big brother Sam goes, we must stupidly follow…) and, once the blame had been assigned, then the lead up to the attacks in Afghanistan, followed the very soon after by the attacks in Iraq.
How this all relates to me wearing (or not wearing) a poppy is that around that November there was plenty of “still we must protect our freedom” and “we still stand strong against the enemies of democracy” and, then, most despicably, the whole “axis of evil” bullshit. I do support wearing a poppy in remembrance of the veterans who went away to the World Wars. I do feel that, in the western world, the two World Wars were an incredibly large turning point in our history (although in hindsight, they really were just one war, weren’t they?). I have, since learning about the Holocaust, felt that World War II, in particular was a “just war”, if such a thing exists. I’ll even support wearing a poppy in remembrance of veterans from the war in Vietnam to an extent – because in the end, they got fucked almost half as bad as the Vietnamese did, and a great number of them weren’t there by choice. But I must draw the line when “remembrance” is extended to the current wars that the US (and, by extension, Canada) are involved in. And the propagandistic mix-up of rhetoric about these “wars”, as unjust as the Vietnam “war” was, and the World Wars and the connection to “protecting democracy and freedom” just ruins the poor poppy. Add the bullshit of the entirety of the Cold War to the mix - where western nations supported numerous brutal dictatorships over democratic socialist or communist parties to keep a death grip on the world - and I'm about ready to vomit.
I don’t classify myself as a complete pacifist. I do feel that war, however, should be avoided at almost all costs, engaged in under two circumstances: the first being when another country attacks yours, the second being when another country is engaging in genocide or other serious human rights infringements.
That really wasn’t the case… you could argue that the Taliban or Saddam Hussein were spitting on human rights, but the wars that followed were quite obviously about profit for big business. And it’s not exactly like the western countries involved (for it really isn’t all just Uncle Sam’s fault, we’re all as responsible) were being subtle when they ran straight for the oil wells. The US even lied to its own citizens to get people to support the war. And it’s not like the United States and its gang of back-up bullies are respecting human rights any better than the previous regimes (women may/may not be doing a little better, but our media really couldn’t care less about the civilian livelihoods whenever one or two of our home boys get killed). The sexually-charged abuse of prisoners-of-war by American soldiers ought to prove that. The fact that torture is an ongoing occurrence at Guantanamo Bay ought to prove that (why hasn't there been any real international outrage here?). Consider the death count of every single war waged in the middle east right now – although the media mourns wildly when one of our good boys from home gets killed, it forgets to mention that five or more people from [read Afghanistan, read Iraq, read Palestine in the case of Israel, read Vietnam if you want to be historical]. These are not equal wars. Our veterans were fighting wars where they had about the same risk level as their enemies. Today, our soldiers are fighting wars where they are in a considerably safer place. And, yes, they do still get killed sometimes. And that is hard on their families. But what about the people they are killing? Have we forgotten that Afghans and Iraqis are people too? Remember: wars are made for killing people. One should not be surprised if someone gets killed in active duty. It's WAR. That's the way war works!
How can I wear a poppy, then, without a hint of irony, the symbol of “lest we forget” when we have completely forgotten any lessons we claim to have learned from the past wars? How can I honour the achievements of old veterans when new veterans are knocking them down unceremoniously? There is no "honour" in any war, let alone a war where one side has a "smart bombs" and much deeper pockets.
The poppy itself isn’t so innocent a symbol as I once felt it was, either. Although it is a beautiful symbol, the poem, Flanders Fields does not reflect any real desire to somehow avoid war. Nay!, in the last stanza it so clearly states:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. (McCrae 1915)
So, basically, the poppy is a symbol of a poem encouraging us to carry on the fight. And that distresses me. World War I was completely senseless. The only reason that World War II was not completely senseless was that it put an end to the slaughter of millions of people. Of course, however, not a single country stepped in on the behalf of the Jewish people, nor any other group victimized by the Nazis. Britain and France did not move until Poland, their ally was swallowed up by Germany. The United States, for all its flaunting ideals of “freedom” and “democracy” didn’t bother to lift a finger until it was attacked itself (and although the Japanese empire was not innocent of human rights violations, I do believe they were fully justified in attempting to take on the Americans at that time; the Americans were trying to bully them into submission).
Don’t tell me to remember the lessons you’ve already forgotten. The symbol of the poppy leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. The hypocrisy of it. How dare we wear such a symbol when we attack innocent countries? How dare we wear such a symbol when we allow genocide and human rights infringements to continue on unabated around the globe for our own profit? How dare we? How dare we wear this symbol, sport “support our troops” ribbons and proclaim that we need an army for protection when we have not needed to defend our own borders (not since our dear neighbours the States attacked us at least) for almost two centuries? When we do not use our army for useful things? Sure, the Canadian army says that it is a “peacekeeping” army, but our mission in Afghanistan is no longer “peacekeeping”. How dare we, when we allow our “friends” to ignore basic human rights, for example, the United States’ “secret prisons” where they happily submit suspects to a witch-hunt torture system to prove terrorist allegations? How dare we look the other way when our own economic system is reliant on stomping other nations down, looking the other way as our very own corporations take away the sovereignty of other countries, violating basic human rights in the process? (Don't look the other way when the World Trade Organization and the World Bank are involved, because they enable these atrocities, as well as give us a bloody leg up.) And Israel, the most bitter of all ironies, which has proven the trauma of Holocaust survivors by allowing them to treat Palestinians almost as poorly as the Nazis treated them? How can we still hold our heads up, let alone wear a symbol saying “lest we forget”?
How dare we, again: we remember our veterans, but have not a word to say to the victims: the survivors of not only the Holocaust, but both victims and survivors of the nuclear bombs. Yes, we have memorial days, but on no such scale as that for the veterans. And no, still, I am not saying we should forget our veterans. I am saying we should also remember that every war has its civilian victims. Not only military victims, but consequences for the unfortunate, and truly innocent civilians who were not fighting the war. Yet they are forgotten.
The final thing that really bugs me about Remembrance Day is the unfortunate timing of it. Ironically, the armistice signed on November 11th was not a very good armistice. It was an unfair treaty, condemning Germany to poverty; creating the sort of situation that allows for an extremist leader such as Adolf Hitler rise to power. Consider how impoverished desperate situations leads to extremism in much of the middle east today, especially. Do you think people who are leading comfortable lives will turn to such violence easily? People who are content are not easily swayed towards violence. People who have little to nothing to lose because of desperate situations, however, will turn to violent actions because they know they cannot continue living as they are. If we are to remember something on November 11th, perhaps it should be the dooming sentence we forced down upon Germany that ultimately led to the outbreak of World War II.
I do not want to downplay the role our veterans played in our history. I do, however, want to separate the differences between the wars then and the wars now. There is a difference. I want people to remember that there are two sides to every war, at least, often more, and there are always innocent victims. In fact, the number of innocent victims in any war has been going up continuously since the advent of "modern warfare" (pretty much World War I and after). While we honour our veterans, we should not forget: World War II was won only when the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - a nuclear bomb on civilians, not soldiers. Today, we "remember" the lessons learned, but we still allow numerous countries to hoard nuclear weapons. We still look the other way in the case of genocides. We look the other way, for that matter, in the case of a much more mundane killer: the poverty that our own nations force upon many third world nations. We forget that "the other side" (and is there ever really an evil other side?) is being killed too. And we forget that in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we are the aggressors. Sorry, guys. We're not the heroes anymore. We're not liberating people from concentration camps, we're not helping anyone any more. We've simply torn down the existing political structure and now we wonder why there is chaos and anarchy.
Remember that war is much more complex than "Lest we forget". Even World War I and II, it is far more complicated than the good "us" and the evil "them". And until we can figure that out as a society, I won't be wearing a poppy for Remembrance Day.