The Remembrance Poppy

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The Peacekeeping Monument, Ottawa

The Peacekeeping Monument, Ottawa

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, don’t be surprised to see red poppies brightening up dark and bulky winter clothing. The “remembrance poppy” is a Canadian (and British) tradition, inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian poet John McCrae, which describes poppies growing amid soldiers’ graves. Since 1921, the red flower has been used to commemorate soldiers who have died in war or any conflict since 1914.

Traditionally worn from the last Friday in October to the end of the day on November 11, plastic poppies are sold for a small donation just about anywhere by Royal Canadian Legion members and veterans, dressed in their neatly-pressed uniforms. Millions of Canadians wear it proudly on the left breast, close to the heart, and the main public issue usually revolves around not losing it (and apparently, using a Canadian flag pin to secure it is frown upon by the Legion—bad poppy etiquette!).

Wearing the remembrance poppy is not mandatory, of course, but it has become expected. You kind of stand out if you don’t wear one, although I suppose you could have lost it. Public figures who don’t wear the poppy are often frowned upon and disparaged for not honouring their veterans—from politicians to news anchor you’d be hard-pressed to find someone without it.

Yet, I have never bought or worn a poppy.

When I first came to Canada, I felt like an outsider. Taking part in a Canadian custom and any patriotic act would have been weird—after all, I knew very little about the country. I could have followed the crowd but I wanted to understand first. Not wearing the poppy wasn’t a conscious decision: it was a Canadian custom and I wasn’t yet Canadian, that’s all. Time would come.

But time never came because then, I got confused. I started to wonder if wearing a poppy represented a support for all military action, not just the sacrifices made by soldiers in past wars we see as a clear fight between good and evil, like WWII. And since WWII, there were many conflicts where I’m not sure military action was justified.

It’s hard to explain that while I don’t support the military as an entity, I don’t resent its members individually. I don’t begrudge kids for joining because enlisting feels like the best career option and a good way to get an education if you come back alive and still want to attend university. I don’t think all those who serve are violent idiot who just want to fight with real weapons and get paid for it. The reality is much more nuanced and subtle. People join the army for all kinds of reason.

“But we saved your ass in 1945!” some may say. Yes, as a European, I am indeed grateful to those who fought against Nazi Germany, the French government that collaborated and many other fascist nations and ideologies. But my feelings are ambivalent. I feel for those who died during WWII and any other war, for that matters. But I feel for them as human beings, not because they were the good guys and because they wore a uniform.

Both Americans and Canadians have a way to honour veterans and active servicemen and women that is virtually unknown in France where, if anything, you make fun or the army rather than offering military discounts, respect and prayers. So maybe I’m just being French. I’m not used to be told to “support the troops”—of course, I want everyone to come back safely, regardless of the circumstances under which they were deployed. But should I blindly support the current respective government’s foreign policy? I don’t think so.

It also bothers me that we honour vets but that we seem to forget about all the civilians who died during conflicts. Collateral damages, stuck between two sides, ideologies, threats and treaties. So we honour people who are paid to fight and signed up for the job, but we don’t mention the innocent bystanders? Yeah, I’m extrapolating and overinterpreting. Still, it doesn’t feel right.

I have the same ambiguous feelings about the War Museum in Ottawa. It is important to revisit past conflicts and atrocities and to learn from our mistakes, to understand how we got there. But halfway through the exhibits, I always feel slightly bothered by the rhetoric. It seems that only one side is right, and that there is only one way to solve the issue: with big motherfucking guns. It’s not that simple. The military is a tool used by governments, soldiers are geopolitical pawns and the population is brainwashed to stand by them, conveniently forgetting to focus on the bigger picture: why are we fighting, already?

Maybe we should pause for a second and stop to blindly honour this, support that. Maybe governments are tricking us into accepting war.

I don’t know anymore.

Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum.

I don’t think I need a poppy to remember that any place on earth can go from civil to civil war in a matter of months. I don’t think I need a reminder that we just can’t help fighting—for greed and power, but also for freedom and noble causes.

This Remembrance Day, I will think about this.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

17 Comments

  1. I often explain to french people the high number of american flags nation wide by this simple sentence: when you think about it, the US has never stopped being at war once since… the 18th century. It seems crazy, right? You bet there’s some patriotism in the States!
    I know, I know, it’s a little bit more complicated than that but I think it’s an important information (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States).
    One of my american friends is 30 and he’s a veteran. Seems crazy to french people, right?
    I’ll never get used to that, and I don’t want to. I hope this madness stop one day.

    • Both of your insights are spot on. And it’s true that I found it very strange to see young veterans in North America. For the French me, veterans were people who fought in WWI and WWII!

  2. I wear a poppy to remember the soldiers’ sacrifices and for all those innocent people that have suffered because of war and for the freedom that I have. I think of the lives that could have been but for war. I think of the desperate war refugees going to Europe today and of the ones that drown in the sea.

    I don’t like war but I would not want to live in a world where the Germans, Japanese and Italians won the war. I don’t think that war is an inherent part of man’s nature but how else do you deal with people like ISIS that are blinded by religion and are not open to rational debate and compromise. It all stems from a lack of tolerance and human respect.

    In Flanders Fields

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing 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.

    Lest we Forget

    John McCrae, May 1915

    This is a beautiful poem but I think that Barry McGuire’ s “Eve of Destruction” is also appropriate

    “Eve Of Destruction”

    The eastern world it is exploding
    Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
    You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’
    You don’t believe in war but whats that gun you’re totin’?
    And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’

    But you tell me
    Over and over and over again my friend
    Ah, you don’t believe
    We’re on the eve of destruction

    Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say
    Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today?
    If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away
    There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave
    Take a look around you boy, it’s bound to scare you boy

    And you tell me
    Over and over and over again my friend
    Ah, you don’t believe
    We’re on the eve of destruction

    Yeah my blood’s so mad feels like coagulating
    I’m sitting here just contemplatin’
    I can’t twist the truth it knows no regulation
    Handful of senators don’t pass legislation
    And marches alone can’t bring integration
    When human respect is disintegratin’
    This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’

    And you tell me
    Over and over and over again my friend
    Ah, you don’t believe
    We’re on the eve of destruction

    Think of all the hate there is in Red China
    Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
    You may leave here for four days in space
    But when you return it’s the same old place
    The pounding of the drums, the pride and disgrace
    You can bury your dead but don’t leave a trace
    Hate your next door neighbor but don’t forget to say grace

    And tell me
    Over and over and over and over again my friend
    You don’t believe
    We’re on the eve of destruction
    Mmm, no, no, you don’t believe
    We’re on the eve of destruction

    • Thank you for posting both poems. I should have, they are beautiful and very relevant.

      I’m certainly not opposed to wearing the poppy and I think it’s good to pause on Remembrance Day. It’s just that I like to understand why I do something, if that makes sense.

      I guess we are all opposed to war, it’s kind of like we are all against misery, poverty, hunger, etc. But more and more, I’m leaning to believe that military action is completely useless especially against people who have been brainwashed. We are poorly equipped to deal with the aftermath as well. We know how to destroy and kill the enemy but we don’t know how to rebuild. Right after 9/11, I remember thinking that Bin Laden, then #1 public enemy, would be found and killed sooner and later and that it wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever. He was an awful person, but he was the obvious target–what should we do with his disciples? Kill them all until none of them is left? Doesn’t work. There are still people who strongly believe in Nazism in Europe…!

  3. Martin Penwald on

    Ouais, alors, la façon dont le supposé “héroïsme” des militaires est présenté me déplaît fortement. Ça a un goût de “Maréchal, nous voilà ! ” assez détestable.
    Admettons que les Nord-Américains soient intervenus en Europe dans les 2 guerres mondiales (j’ai une photo prise à Vancouver d’un mémorial consacré aux Canadiens décédés pendant la première guerre mondiale, dans le Pas-de-Calais, à Vimy et ailleurs https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%A9morial_de_Vimy ), il n’y a rien de glorieux. Les journaux paraissant juste avant la guerre exacerbent les patriotisme locaux, en insistant bien sur toute la vilénie de l’Étranger.
    En France, le fort sentiment revanchard (après la guerre de 1871) aide à vendre la guerre au vulgus pecus, guerre absurde qui a profité à quelques très riches opportunistes, toutes nationalités confondues.

    2 textes à lire à ce sujet
    “War is a racket”, du général Smedley Butler (le type qui a eu le plus de décorations militaires de l’histoire de l’armée US, donc assez loin du stéréotype du hippie gaucho-marxiste du coin)
    http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html
    “The War Prayer” de Samuel Clemens (plus connu sous le nom de Mark Twain), écrit en 1904 mais publié seulement à titre posthume en 1910 car ses proches considéraient l’œuvre trop subversive.

    Impossible après ça de prétendre honorer le sacrifice de pauvres types embrigadés sans savoir pourquoi on les envoyaient au casse-pipe.

    D’ailleurs, on entend assez peu parler des soldats qui ont été punis après avoir fraterrnisé avec l’ennemi (trêve de Noël à Frelinghem par exemple), alors qu’ils ont fait preuve d’un grand humanisme qui aurait dû empêcher ces guerres stupides si les décideurs de l’époque en avait fait preuve. Mais pognon avant tout …

    Dans le même ordre d’idées, un acte réellement héroïque (la transmission par Manning de documents montrant l’ignoble comportement de militaires américains, considérés, à l’occasion de ce jour, comme de valeureux héros) a été puni de 35 ans de prison ; quand elle va en sortir, Chelsea Manning aura passé plus de temps en prison que libre. C’est à vomir.

    « L’Ennemi est bête : il croit que c’est nous, l’ennemi, aloprs que c’est lui. » Pierre Desproges.

      • Je vais lire tout ça ce soir 🙂

        C’est moi, ou Vimy est assez peu connu en France? C’est la première chose que j’ai appris au Canada, et j’étais assez mal vu qu’en tant que Française, je ne me souvenais pas du tout d’avoir vu la bataille mentionnée dans mes cours d’histoire. Oups. Ceci dit, l’histoire est une question de perspective aussi…

        Beaucoup de militaires disent eux-même que la glorification de leurs états de service les met assez mal à l’aise. Le sujet revient pas mal dans les forums, surtout chez les jeunes américains.

        • Martin Penwald on

          Pour Vimy, je ne sais pas, parce que c’est pas loin de chez moi et que j’y suis déjà allé quand j’étais jeune. Je pense même que je suis allé là pour une sortie scolaire quand j’étais en primaire.
          Et plus tard, un peu avant d’arriver au Canada, je faisais une ligne régulière qui passait à côté du mémorial, donc je voyais les panneaux vers le site canadien.
          Ainsi, je connais parce que je suis de la région, mais il n’y a pas de raison que ce soit si connu que ça ailleurs en France. C’est un détail de l’histoire perdu au milieu d’innombrables anecdotes.
          Cependant, pour les Canadiens, le mémorial de Vimy est a priori le plus important monument commémoratif en dehors du Canada, donc il revêt probablement une dimension toute particulière. D’ailleurs, le territoire sur lequel il se trouve appartient au Canada.

          • Chez moi (dans l’Ouest), jamais entendu parler. Comme tu dis, c’est l’un des pans (ahem, je ne vais pas parler de détail de l’histoire, ça rappelle quelqu’un… oui, je sais que tu ne l’as pas fait exprès!!) de l’histoire, mais toute l’Europe est un champ de bataille et chaque endroit a une signification particulière pour des gens. Je ne savais pas du tout pour le territoire qui appartenait au Canada.

            Quand j’étais à l’école, nos sorties scolaire c’était invariablement autour de Jules Verne (Nantes, quoi) ou tous les écrivains/poètes qui sont venus s’enterrer en Bretagne/Normandie : Hugo, Chateaubriand, etc.

  4. 🙂 This is a difficult.

    My knowledge of history is incomplete and definitely not very vivid; war, violence, aggression has shaped the world. I come from a country whose entire fabric isn’t definable if not from the history of wars and I believe there is hardly a place in our world which as not been touched by it.

    Should it be? It is never going to have a straight answer for many of us. However, it really depends upon what are people capable of, things they can do and can’t do? I think I have stopped making sense

  5. Have you ever heard the Woodstock album from 1970?

    I remember the Vietnam Song by Country Joe and The Fish. They had to censor it when it came out on the radio. It was a popular anti-war song back then. Between 1965 and 1975 an estimated 40,000 U.S. draft dodgers came to Canada.

    Give me an “F! …”F”! give me a “U”! …”U”!
    Give me a “C”! …”C” Give me a “K”! …”K”!
    WHATS THAT SPELL? …”FUCK!” (x5)

    Well come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again,
    he got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam,
    put down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gunna have a whole lotta fun.

    CHORUS
    and its 1,2,3 what are we fightin for?
    don’t ask me i don’t give a dam, the next stop is Vietnam,
    and its 5,6,7 open up the pearly gates. Well there aint no time to wonder why…WHOPEE we’re all gunna die.

    now come on wall street don’t be slow, why man this’s war a-go-go,
    there’s plenty good money to be made, supplyin’ the army with the tools of the trade,
    just hope and pray that when they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Vietcong.

    CHORUS

    now come on generals lets move fast, your big chance is here at last.
    nite you go out and get those reds cuz the only good commie is one thats dead,
    you know that peace can only be won, when you blow em all to kingdom come.
    CHORUS

    (spoken)- listen people i dont know you expect to ever stop the war if you cant sing any better than that… theres about 300,000 of you fuc|ers out there.. i want you to start singing..

    CHORUS

    now come on mothers throughout the land, pack your boys off to vietnam,
    come on fathers don’t hesitate, send your sons off before its too late,
    be the first one on your block, to have your boy come home in a box

    CHORUS

    Alrite !!!!!!!

  6. Definitely food for thought and definitely thoughts I have had. I have also thought that there are so many other charities that don’t receive this kind of publicity or funding that perhaps should and could, arguably, be seen as being more deserving of that dollar spent on a poppy. It is such a touchy issue though!

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