Why I Won’t Be Wearing A Remembrance Day Poppy

7 Nov

It’s early November, which means that our dark, sober winter coats, fresh out of their summer storage, suddenly have bright felt flowers blooming on their lapels. Veterans, dressed in their neatly-pressed Legion uniforms, begin popping up in shopping malls and subway stations, asking for donations. The words Lest We Forget seem to be on everyone’s lips, and my Facebook feed is full of sepia-toned images of baby-faced soldiers and battlegrounds in France.

Poppy season is here, y’all.

For most of my life, I didn’t really give Remembrance Day a whole lot of thought. I mean, it was just something you did, you know? I liked the grown-up feeling of having someone pin a poppy on my coat (although I lived in terror of being stuck by the open pin), and enjoyed the solemnity of the minute of silence. Remembrance Day as a kid often meant assemblies and pageants at school, or else special projects and discussions. Remembrance Day as an adult living in Halifax meant a day off work and school, because it’s a statutory holiday in Nova Scotia, which, hey, why would I complain about that? On top of everything, I’m a sucker for anything historical, so I always enjoyed reading soldier’s accounts of the war, although I have to admit that I preferred learning about the rations they ate and the clothing they wore to hearing about actual, you know, bloodshed. Still, I felt mainly positive about Remembrance Day in general.

Now, though, I feel more ambivalent about it. What, exactly, are we honouring? And, more importantly, why?

First of all, let me just be up front about something: Poppa, my maternal grandfather, is a Second World War veteran. He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, although he never saw active duty, and he remained a fiercely proud pro-military Royal Canadian Legion member until the day he died. I’ve heard friends and family members say that he was the only man brave enough to walk down a post-Bill-22 Quebec street during the local Remembrance Day parade carrying the Union Jack. This holiday is something he believed in, because it honoured the deeply-held convictions about rights and freedoms that his military had fought for. Honestly, I kind of wonder if he’s rolling in his grave right now over what I’m writing here.

See, the thing is, I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to wear the Remembrance poppy anymore.

First of all, let’s look at the history of the Remembrance poppy. In 1920, it began to be used as a way of commemorating soldiers who had died on the battlefields of World War I; it was chosen to symbolize those soldiers in part because of the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian poet John McCrae, which describes poppies growing amid soldiers’ graves, and the unrest of the fallen as they wait for their comrades in arms to end the war and bring about peace. The idea for wearing the Remembrance poppy was popularized by American professor and humanitarian Moina Michael, who, in 1918, wrote a poem called We Shall Keep The Faith in which she swore to wear a red poppy in honour of those who had lost their lives in the war.

In Canada, we use the poppy as a way of honouring all the servicemen and women who have been killed since 1914. The Royal Canadian Legion is pretty serious about the Remembrance poppy – they don’t approve of any changes being made to the poppy (i.e. using a Canadian flag pin instead of the usual straight pin), and they have, in fact, trademarked the image. Canadian Remembrance poppies used to be made by disabled veterans, but since 1996 they have been manufactured by a private contractor. Although wearing a poppy for the first two weeks of November is not mandatory, public figures who don’t wear one are often frowned upon and disparaged for not honouring their veterans.

I’ve been wondering, though, why we need to wear a poppy at all. The line that I most often hear from friends and family is Lest We Forget, but honestly, who’s in danger of forgetting? In the wake of the First World War, which was supposed to be “The War To End All Wars”, it made sense to have a symbol to remember the bloodshed and violence. I mean, sure, if you’re not going to have wars anymore, then you definitely need something to remind of how awful and destructive they are; you need a shorthand to explain to yourself why you don’t ever want to go to war again, right? Sadly, though, that dream never came true – there has been war after war over the last century. A rebellion here, a police action there, peacekeeping here, fighting terror there – and, of course, let’s not forget the bigger conflicts like World War II, the Vietnam War and both wars in Iraq. Why do we need something to remind us of how terrible war is when we’re constantly surrounded by it?

On top of that, we live in a culture that constantly revisits, discusses and celebrates war, especially the Second World War. I mean, come on, have you ever turned on the history channel? Every other show is about fighter pilots or Hitler or something else to do with our glorious military past. And let’s not forget Hollywood – how many movies are there about hunky American soldiers going off to fight hunky World War II? Who knew that so many hot dudes were in the war? Not me, that’s for sure!

I also have to admit that I’m tired of memes like the following, which have been popping up on my Facebook feed for a week or so now:

I mean, first of all, you should avoid putting up Christmas decorations in early November because it’s tacky, not because it dishonours veterans. Secondly, I don’t like the idea that the Royal Canadian Legion (this particular image was posted by Royal Canadian Legion Branch 119), is trying to shame and manipulate people about what they put up in their own private residences. Third of all, I don’t think that Christmas and Remembrance Day have anything to do with each other. I have to say, though, that I really enjoy some of the comments left on the post. I especially love this one from Allyson Landry: “The only reason you have the freedom to have Christmas is thanks to veterans”. Er, what? I think that it’s fair to say that if Canada had somehow fallen to the Nazis during the Second World War, we would have nothing but Christmas – it would be the other religious observances, like Chanukah, for example, or Ramadan, that would be missing.

My main reason for abstaining from wearing a Remembrance poppy, though, is that I’m starting to feel like it represents a support for all of my country’s military action, not just the sacrifices made by soldiers in past wars. It’s as if by wearing it I’m giving my tacit agreement to Canada’s activities in Afghanistan, or the ways that women are mistreated in the Canadian Forces. The truth is, though, that I don’t want our military engaged in any kind of action; I don’t want to feel like I have the blood of civilians (or, well, anybody) on my hands. I also feel deeply uncomfortable about a number of things that happen within military culture; in fact, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t like the idea of the military at all – guns scare the crap out of me, and don’t even get me started on bombs or drones or any of that stuff.

Of course I think that we should honour the men and women who died fighting in our country’s military – especially those who were drafted, and didn’t choose to join the war; but I also think that we should be working to end war, instead of perpetuating it. That’s why this year, instead of wearing a Remembrance poppy, I’m going to try to find a white poppy, which, while still honouring the casualties of all wars, further symbolizes the desire for peace. I’ll still make a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion; I’m just choosing not to wear their icon anymore.

The thing is, I guess that’s what it really boils down to for me: choice. Around Remembrance Day, there’s a lot of talk about soldiers dying for our freedoms; I know that freedom, both personal and political, is one of the reasons my grandfather joined the armed forces. I think that he would be happy, then, that, here in Canada, I have the freedom to be a critical thinker. I think he would be happy that I live in a country where I can choose to remember our military veterans however I want, or even not at all. He would be happy that I am free.

Thank you, Poppa <3

My next post will be a guest post from my friend L over at Life In Pint-Sized Form explaining why she chooses to wear a Remembrance poppy

11 Responses to “Why I Won’t Be Wearing A Remembrance Day Poppy”

  1. Sarah D. November 8, 2012 at 1:35 am #

    What a thoughtful post. While it’s quite clear from my Facebook page where I fall on the whole Remembrance Day/poppy thing, it’s absolutely a nuanced issue and you capture that here. I am inherently a peacenik and I don’t think there’s been a single war in my lifetime I’ve supported (with the *possible* exception of the initial incursion into Afghanistan to find Osama Bin Laden, at least at first), and I certainly would never want to glorify the horrific, inhumane experience (for everyone, soldiers and civvies alike) that is war. And I’m not the biggest fan of how strict the Legion is about their rules re. pinning the poppy – I don’t see anything inherently offensive about pinning it on with a Canada pin (or even a fleur-de-lis, although it doesn’t impress me when done by an attention-seeking premiere who has never before made such a gesture and honestly in that particular case feels like she’s just trying to provoke controversy). With all of that, I would never judge anyone for not wearing one – we can all remember our soldiers, our wars and our sacrifices in what feels like the most honest/respectful way. Really, they fought for our right to be able to do that, and as such we should be able to enjoy it – that’s honouring what they stood for too … at its best anyway.

    That said – for me personally I just don’t see the poppy that way. It’s just more personal. My grandpa was a vet, my uncle was a peacekeeper and my brother’s a reservist – and they are certainly not violent people who believe in the glory of war. They’ve spoken too often about how awful it is, and K’s seen one or two of his friends die and felt guilt about not having gone over to Afghanistan himself, and what really stands out to me in terms of what they’ve valued is they good they were able to do, and the pride, for example that my grandpa felt at liberating villages in Belgium and how until his old age he was still welcomed back by the people he met there warmly. I personally am able to get past some of the understandable baggage and honour that personal sense of commitment the individual soldiers felt, without necessarily supporting all the decisions the warmakers made/make. To me, it’s a “Support our troops, bring them home” kind of thing. But again – in theory, it’s democracy we’re defending, and while I respect the Poppy I understand where it might come with a fair bit of baggage, so it’s not something I tend to judge people about, so long as it’s treated respectfully, as you just did. :)

    (And side note – I posted that Christmas meme on my FB as well – but I basically agree with you that really, it’s just tacky to start up the Christmas thing that early; the Christmas juggernaut crowding out other holidays in between – be it Remembrance Day, or Thanksgiving Day in the US, or the two birthdays we have in our household in our case, is just one of many reasons why I find it so. But I agree, if you’re that eager to get to Xmas, well, have at ‘er.)

    • bellejarblog November 9, 2012 at 3:18 am #

      Yeah, it’s not like I think that the poppy is bad, or that no one should wear it, it’s more that I’m not 100% comfortable wearing it any more, given my politics and my views of our current military. I think anyone who wants to wear it should, though!

      I totally didn’t realize that you’d posted that meme, but I do agree that Christmas decorations in early November are lame. I’m sure my sister, who has a late November birthday, would agree with me. Of course, in the French Catholic calendar, her birthday falls the day before St Catherine’s Day, so she was always pretty happy to celebrate that. La tire Ste-Catherine!

  2. Mark November 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Your logic is faulty: wearing a poppy and honoring the sacrifice of our veterans does not equal tacit support of wars, violence, the military or anything else. If you don’t want to wear a poppy, then don’t – no one cares and there’s no obligation. I do find it ironic that while professing to be anti-war you are very vocally dissing one of the most compelling reasons for being anti-war: the damage it does to the combatants who pay with their lives or their souls. The whole point of Remembrance Day is to take a minute (literally, just one minute!) to think about the people who suffered in the senseless wars of the past. If that doesn’t reinforce your desire to work for peace, what does?

    • bellejarblog November 9, 2012 at 3:40 am #

      Hi Mark,

      Thank you for your reply! I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with me.

      I do intend to wear a poppy in order to honour the sacrifices of our veterans, it’s just that I’ll wear a white poppy instead of a red one. And just to be really super clear here, I think that anyone who wants to wear a red poppy should. My husband wears a red Remembrance poppy, and when my son is old enough, I’ll encourage him to wear one as well, until he’s old enough to decide for himself. It’s just that I’ve realized that, give my views on the military and war, I no longer think it’s appropriate for me to wear one. I also like the fact that the white poppy symbolizes not only the sacrifices our soldiers made, but also the civilian casualties of war, the environmental damages of war, and the fact that I reject war as a tool for social change.

      I will certainly take a minute of silence at work and, as I said in my post, I will make a donation to the legion.

      I do take what you’ve said seriously, and I feel badly that people have taken what I wrote as being disrespectful to veterans. That was certainly not my intent. And, again, to be really super clear: veterans have my utmost respect. The Canadian Forces, on the other hand, are a different story. I realize that perhaps when I was talking about the portrayal of war in the media, especially in films or video games, I might have seemed flippant, but with all seriousness I do believe that these things most often glorify war rather than portraying the truth: that war is terrible and horrifying and I literally cannot think of adjectives strong enough to describe how awful it is.

      Anyway, thank you again for stopping by and leaving your opinion. I hope you had the chance to read my guest post today explaining why my friend chooses to wear the red poppy. I tried to give a balanced view of the issue, showing both my side and the other side.

      Kind regards,

      Annabelle

      • Sebastian November 9, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

        I totally agree with this post. I found myself sitting in my umpteenth Remembrance assembly today and thought “Why exactly am I here?”
        This day needs to evolve; to become more about looking at a peaceful future than remembering a bloody past. I mean, I have mountains of respect for those soilders that lost their lives, but at the same time, I have difficulty caring because every year we are guilted into this ceremony, and I know that many others feel the same.
        Hell, I have all sorts of relatives who were in one war or another, but this rediculous glorying of the past needs to stop and become something more.

  3. AC November 10, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Shameful

  4. brendalynn November 11, 2012 at 2:11 am #

    “Why do we need something to remind us of how terrible war is when we’re constantly surrounded by it?” This is a really interesting discussion, and this line in particular made me think of Rachel Maddow’s book, Drift. Though it’s about American military engagement, one of the arguments she makes is that the general public has been further and further removed from consequences of military action, and thus desensitized to it in a way that allows for more military engagement. Your question + her book make me think that, yes, people do need to be reminded of how terrible war is – precisely because we’re constantly surrounded by it!

    That said, I’m not Canadian, so I’m sure I miss some of the nuance of wearing a red poppy, but I like your solution of a white poppy in its stead!

    • bellejarblog November 11, 2012 at 2:45 am #

      That’s a really interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered! Here in North America, we are pretty far removed from any war, and for our generation, even more so than our parents, the threat of war on Canadian soil seems pretty inconceivable. So I do think that you’re right – we are desensitized to it in a way that encourages more people to enlist, more deployment, etc.

      Thanks for the comment!

      p.s. I love Rachel Maddow so hard

  5. ExArmy December 29, 2012 at 12:43 am #

    The Poppy is about remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, it is not about remembering wars and all they bring, it is to remember the fallen and should be shown the right level of respect!

    • bellejarblog December 29, 2012 at 1:24 am #

      And there absolutely isn’t any other way to show respect and remembrance other than wearing a poppy?

    • Quinn February 22, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

      “Should”?

      Look ex, i agree with the idea that we really need to show our solidarity with these poor folk who did so much for us. But one of the things they did for us was to fashion a nation where we are FREE to express ourselves however we see fit. They should see this as just as much of a triumph as those who show up wearing dozens of poppies.

      A white poppy IS showing respect anyway. She’s wearing something that will make people stop and say “Hey, what’s with the white poppy?” and then she’ll talk and then they’ll talk and maybe one more person will go away thinking about how to make the world a peaceful place. And if enough people begin to think like this, then it may change the way we do things. Then our servicemen and servicewomen can go out into the world as PEACEKEEPERS or helping out with disasters here at home.

      Don’t be such a nazi dude. I doubt your forefathers would want that. That’s not what they fought for. Show some respect..

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