12 reasons I prefer the non-traditional variety
by Geoff Olson
• Like most people, I have worn a red poppy before and on Remembrance Day, almost as a seasonal reflex. Yet in recent years my enthusiasm for the custom has dimmed, even while my respect for Canadian military veterans has not.
The poppy first appeared as a symbol of remembrance of World War 1 in 1920. It was inspired by the 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields, by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who noted in verse that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the shell-tilled earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders Field, a region that crossed French and Belgian territory. Paper versions of the flower were first used by the American Legion to commemorate American soldiers who died in World War 1. Military veterans’ groups in the Commonwealth adopted the custom shortly thereafter, before and during their November 11 Remembrance Day commemorations.
Below are 12 reasons why I am reluctant to wear the blood-red symbol this November:
1) November 11 commemorates the WW1 armistice: In 1914, a confusing patchwork of national alliances exploded into a land war in Europe, resulting in 37 million military and civilian casualties in just four years. In the meat grinder of trench warfare, the ammunition of opposing sides was worn down by a fusillade of young male bodies. The only ones to profit from this madness were the plutocrats, industrialists and demagogues of the warring nations, along with oil barons focused on the “Great Game” in central Asia.
There are very few surviving World War 1 veterans. The day that commemorates the armistice and the astounding courage of the era’s soldiers also validates one of humanity’s greatest catastrophes, one that set the stage for the Holocaust and World War 2 a few decades later. At its outset, the custom of poppy-wearing honoured brave young men propagandized into killing other brave young men.
The ‘ground truth’ of World War 1’s cost to fighting forces on all sides was summed up in a Roger Waters’ song Us and Them, written 57 years after McCrae’s poem:
And after all we’re only ordinary men / Me, and you / God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do / Forward he cried from the rear / And the front rank died / And the General sat, and the lines on the map / Moved from side to side. – Pink Floyd
2) A Commonwealth symbol for Remembrance oversimplifies international conflict: The defeat of the genocidal German leader Adolph Hitler was a tremendous victory for the world, which the Commonwealth has every reason to celebrate to this day. That said, the Nazi regime could not have built up its industrial base without foreign help. Charles Higham’s 1983 book, Trading With The Enemy: An exposé of the Nazi-American money plot, 1933-1949, offers an astounding list of subversive activities by Anglo-American industrialists and bankers. (To give just one example, Thomas Harrington McKittrick, American president of the Bank for International Settlements, travelled freely among Axis and Allied countries throughout the war on a special visa, free from interference, even while the BIS was completely under Hitler’s control.)
Hitler, a failed watercolour painter with a brush moustache, won over the German people with his petit mal oratorical style. He expertly captured and channelled their nationalistic resentments and ethnic bigotries with his charismatic lunacy. But he was also aided and abetted by western interests, just as similar interests supported the rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq a half-century later.
3) The red poppy does not honour the sacrifice of other soldiers: Combat soldiers on the ‘wrong side’ of any given conflict are invariably seen as losers in terms of their state/social programming, to say nothing of actual defeat. Yet they can also be seen as heroes in terms of personal sacrifice, beyond the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of their cause. For generations, courageous people have been propagandized into fighting for God, Pope, Emperor, King, Queen, Kaiser, Reichsfuhrer or a set of lines on a map. The real causes usually involve resources and territory.
4) War is toxic to democracies, even for the victors: “Until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman,” noted historian A.J.P. Taylor in English History 1914-1945.
“He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14 or rather less than eight percent of the national income.”
The First World War altered the dynamic between citizen and state, and not just in Britain. The US Sedition Act was passed in May of 1918, mere months before armistice. The Act was later used as a tool for the arrest, imprisonment, execution and deportation of dozens of unionists, anarchists and communists. It became a bludgeon used to criminalize “antipatriotic’ and “antiwar” speech.
There was also the post-WW2 fallout on the US press, as noted by Ben Bagdikian, Dean Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “The incestuous relationship of the Monopoly Media Cartel and psychological warfare has a long history. Veterans of World War II, for example, the US Army’s Psychological Warfare Division, became the Cold War’s media giants. OSS agent William S. Paley became a CBS executive. C.D. Jackson [an expert on psychological warfare who served in the Office of Strategic Services in World War II] worked at Time/Life…William Casey was an executive at Capital Cities, which merged with ABC and subsequently devoured by Disney. Casey himself, of course, became Director of the CIA,” Bagdikian observed in his 1983 book, The Media Monopoly.
In the US, the growth of the military-industrial complex has run in tandem with increased domestic surveillance, decertified unions, the militarization of police departments, the infiltration and monopolization of the independent press, the sacking of Treasury finances and the concealment of state and corporate crimes under the banner of national security. These trends have accelerated since 9/11.
5) There is no glory in war: If there were, the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful would be the ones on the front lines, not the cannon fodder drawn from rural areas and small towns. Young people with minimal employment options sign up for the armed services; the lucky ones get an education behind the lines, while the unlucky ones get theirs in dustblown hell-zones. A quarter of the returning soldiers of the Bush-era wars, Canadians and Americans alike, have experienced mental health problems ranging from suicidal thoughts to unmanageable anger or some other variant of PTSD, with the prospect of diminishing post-combat support from their governments.
6) “Mission Creep:” The enthusiastic participation of government, business, civic groups, sports organizations and media in Remembrance Day commemorations appears to be on the rise in Canada, in a days-long buildup to the main event. November 11 has spilled out of its calendrical box into neighbouring days and been co-opted into nationalistic displays of power. In military circles, that sort of thing is known as “mission creep.”
7) Civilian deaths far outnumber soldier deaths: The civilians, who died as a result of the wars, official or undeclared, of the 20th and 21st centuries, outnumber the casualties of soldiers by many tens of millions. Needless to say, there is no holiday to acknowledge the involuntary sacrifice of these mostly forgotten souls.
8 ) There will be no ‘World War 4’: When historians began to optimistically number World Wars, it was a clear sign of a need to rethink a Sesame Street approach to global conflagrations. Thankfully, the US government and NATO forces recently pulled back from the brink in Syria, but it was disturbing that Kerry and Obama were so willing to play chicken with Syria’s ally, Vladimir Putin – especially given today’s crazy quilt of geopolitical alliances, reminiscent of Europe just prior to World War 1.
I can’t support a seasonal sentimentalism about war that doesn’t explicitly condemn its potential for human extinction. As expatriate British singer/songwriter Ian Hunter observed in his song Flowers: Hunger, anger, propaganda / Ain’t it time we all grew up?… / Mass confusion, disillusion / Sometimes flowers ain’t enough.
9) Canada’s militaristic posturing: In recent years, Canada has transformed from a ‘soft power’ to a belligerent presence at the UN and on the world stage. The House of Commons has turned into an echo chamber for US militarism. The Canadian military directs special forces to Mali and other far-off trouble spots. Foreign Minister John Baird behaves like the squeeze toy of Israel’s President Netanyahu and the Royal Mint issues coins commemorating the battle of 1812, in tandem with government-sponsored television advertisements for the same. Only a scathing report from the Auditor General and public outrage sidelined Harper’s plans to spend billons of taxpayer dollars on F-35 jets, which have no defensive purpose whatsoever for Canadian territory and security – even under the questionable assumption these wonky weapon platforms will work as advertised.
10) Poppies’ other connection to war: The poppy bulb is the source of opium, a narcotic drug long connected with wars in central/southeast Asia. In the mid-1800s, Britain went to war with China to force the Chinese government to continue importing their opium cultivated in India. Refined into heroin, trafficking of the narcotic has continued to haunt military adventurism to the present day, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Drugs and war are intertwined in the shadow economy, with the trafficking of heroin and cocaine supplying billions of dollars of liquidity to the global banking system through laundered funds.
11) Thou shalt not kill: I could never figure out how the Sixth Commandment from the Bible jibed with Onward Christian Soldiers and other crusade-friendly memes. Judeo-Christianity is still the dominant ethos in North America, especially among the warrior class hailing from small town America. It’s remarkable that a commandment supposedly written in stone (on Moses’ tablets) is never cited during the media ballyhoo that precedes every military engagement. Every year, Fox News trots out its tired trope about “the war on Christmas,” yet when it comes to Murdoch-endorsed war mongering, somehow forgets the injunction against homicide in its sacred instruction book.
Remembrance Day distracts us from the new, automated face of state-sanctioned slaughter, which may depart even further from democratic oversight, or even human control, through the proposed introduction of “Terminator-style” robots and drones. With targeted assassinations conducted remotely by joystick, the red poppy refers back to a kind of warfare that will increasingly be limited to proxy armies and paramilitary contractors.
12) Red poppies have been rejected as wartime Remembrance by one Anglo-American state: Years ago, a vacationing acquaintance tried to enter a bar in Northern Ireland while wearing a red poppy. A helpful local stopped him at the door and advised him to remove it for his own safety. “The poppy is especially controversial in Northern Ireland and most Irish nationalists and Irish Catholics refuse to wear one due to the actions of the British Army during The Troubles,” according to Wikipedia. So there is certainly at least one cultural precedent for rejecting the red poppy.
There is an alternative to the red poppy. In 1933, Britain’s Co-operative Women’s Guild introduced a white poppy and white poppy wreaths as pacifist symbols. Seventy-seven years later, the Royal Canadian Legion considered launching a lawsuit if groups in Prince Edward Island and Ontario did not stop handing out white poppies ahead of Remembrance Day. Beyond the questionability of a copyright challenge over an image of a flower, there is nothing to stop people from painting their red poppies white or constructing ones out of white paper stock.
There are many thousands of red poppy wearing veterans who march in parades for peace, attend antinuclear rallies and the like. I respect the contributions, past and present (but hopefully not future) of all Canadian veterans, just as I respect any Canadian’s choice to wear a red poppy. I am not arguing in favour of abandoning Remembrance Day, but I am hoping we expand its meaning in our hearts and minds. A new generation could start by refusing to fight for a pampered class of wealthy civilians; those whose children will never serve in front line combat.
“Most wars in the 20th century have started as a result of lies,” observed Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a 2011 interview with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. “Amplified and spread by the mainstream press… populations basically don’t like wars and they have to be lied into it. And that means we can be truthed into peace.”
White poppies, anyone?
Anzac poppies, by Nankai, photo from Wikimedia Commons