It’s Remembrance Day in Canada today, the commemoration when Commonwealth countries (Britain and its former empire and whatever) commemorate the armistice at the end of WWI, as well as veterans everywhere, living or not. America’s version is Memorial Day in May, while the Russians commemorate Victory Day in the same month but on the 9th (most of Europe celebrates the fall of Nazi Germany on the day earlier – time zone witchcraft!).
And it’s never entirely free of controversy. Last year I had a brief but interesting exchange with a military-employed friend after he posted this on his wall:
“By all means, buy yourself a white poppy and wear it. Declare that it stands for peace. As long as you realize that never has wishing for peace been enough to make violent men and belligerent countries lay down their arms. Wish for peace all you want, it will have all the effect of political rhetoric without political will. I will wear a RED poppy. It is not the opposite of your white “peace poppy.” My RED Poppy stands not for war. It stands for the willingness of men and women to stand up for their country and its ideals in time of need and do what needs to be done to move towards peace. It stands for men and women who had the courage to want peace in their time, and in our time, who had the courage to offer themselves, if necessary, to achieve that. They wanted peace too, they wished for it too, the difference is that they did much more than simply wish for it. Their sacrifice helped to ensure you live in a world where you can choose a white poppy, but you owe it to them not to wear it in ignorance of one simple truth: Peace does not come from simply wishing it.”
It’s a lot to take in at once and I was glad for the (all-too brief) chat I had with my friend afterwards.
Full disclaimer: during my final years in university I started wearing both the red and white poppies between Halloween and Remembrance day – if I didn’t wear the white poppy during the last few years living in Canada it was mostly because I didn’t really have easy access to one. I haven’t worn a poppy since starting to globetrot because, um, there aren’t any ‘round these parts.
It does, however, remind me of the St. George ribbon here in Russia.
This red-and-orange ensemble was flying high in preparation for the 70th anniversary of the surrender of the Nazi gov’t – even though it’s celebrated in May, you can still see the colours poking through on signs and whatnot in November (“every day is Victory day,” joked the driver of one of the cars I hitchhiked with last summer). It has every bit of significance for them as the poppy does for Canadians. And it’s every bit as complicated.
The first thing that strikes me is the vehemence I see coming from supporters on either side – a number of white-poppy bearers paint red-poppy wearers as war-mongers and some red-poppy wearers see all white-poppy wearers as seriously attempting to offend or criticize anyone who was a veteran of the major wars. And all this to the point where seeing a patch of white or red on someone’s coat doesn’t just prompt thought/remembrance/empathy but actively causes anger. Or something.
Typically, war and military action are in the category of topics that MOST demand the kind of detached, thoughtful and thought-out responses necessary for hot-topic issues. And generally we’re missing out on that one. In spades. Our very response to the thing becomes one of the big hurdles to overcome in addressing it – an incredibly helpful reaction on our part. But this isn’t to say that people who get upset are idiots (though we’re all idiots on some points, and justly so), it just makes me wonder how much more is at stake in this than just people’s opinions about war. Something about this nags at a person’s id, their instincts. I still can’t put my finger on it and it bugs me.
I’m sure there are douchebags on either side of any divide, but not including the folks who are actually gearing for a fight I’m going to assume decent intentions in both camps. What *are* the factors that turn people rabid on each other over peace?
I’ve had to do some reading up on my own approach to the white poppy: I originally replied to my friend’s post by saying “I hate the thought that either of these poppies are against each other – as I understand, red poppies are for dead soldiers, white poppies are for dead civilians.” And I stand by that sentiment as justification for having worn both red and white poppies during my time as a student. I saw the red poppy, with its emphasis on soldiers, as not enough of a symbol to encompass the horror of war and the cost of the sacrifices associated with it.
Some say that the red poppy can stand for everything, but the emphasis during Remembrance Day on the reading out of dead soldiers’ names, fundraising for members of the local Legion and recitations of “In Flander’s Fields” (all good things) puts the focus squarely on the soldiers who fought. Civilians and other victims of war are less often given focus in the same way, and so I saw the white poppy as a fitting reminder and compliment for that. For me, Remembrance day isn’t (and shouldn’t be) only about those who served, but to remember everyone caught up in the maelstrom. If it was called “Veteran’s Day” then it’d be a different story.
If that were all it was, then fine. But then when I started Googling the history of the white poppy (like, an hour before writing this, ha) I realized that its roots aren’t just in the “mourning the casualties of war” section of the theatre, but kinda veering towards “we oppose all war.” Which is a different can of tomatoes altogether. The degree of pacifism expressed is different depending on what group you talk to, but the white poppy, when expressed in this way, says that we should be working towards the point where militaries will be unnecessary.
It’s not too far a jump from seeing a sentiment like this and interpreting it as an accusation that all people who take up a gun have themselves become enemies of peace and what peace stands for. And this, I think, is part of the offense some people feel when they see a white poppy. They’re standing on squares across the world in order to remember what some people did in order to stop Fascist Germany, and there’s someone in the crowd wearing something that (to them) seems to imply that all the people who tried to stop the Nazis were actually no better. Cue the blood boiling.
It ultimately comes down to two ideas: that violence only begets more (and unforeseen/uncontrollable) violence, and, on the opposing side, that there are some kinds of evil that can only be held back by force.
The second statement is one that’s being expressed in the meme my friend posted – it firmly stands on the foundation that there’re some evils that need to be fought, and to resist fighting means letting a particularly nasty shade of dark win the day.
The conflict between these two ideas is something much bigger to be dealt with, but at the moment I’m still wanting to focus on how to relate to white and red poppies as symbols and whether or not, as said symbols, they can be used as complementary and not contradictory forces.
I guess the main question at stake here boils down to whether we need to kill in order to prevent further loss of life.
And who do we kill? How many?
The nature of symbols don’t really help out very much.
As I mentioned in a recentish post, the problem with symbols is that, like language, you can’t put them into a box. They grow and take/drop meaning as they sail along. Certain people may claim special privilege in defining a particular symbol (Southern advocate groups the Confederate flag, Christians the cross, the Legion the poppy), but things eventually reach a level of ubiquity where everyone starts projecting onto things a reflection of their own experience/relationship with not just what the symbol is supposed to mean, but with the symbol itself.
Take the St. George Ribbon, for example. This is an example that I’m struggling with quite a lot at the moment. On the one hand it’s said to represent victory over fascism, liberation of various countries from Nazi German control and, mainly, the heroism/sacrifice of various members of the Red Army.
Okay, cool, all great things when we just leave it at that. But then we think about how many of the countries liberated by the Soviet Union were then transformed into the communist, satellite states of the Warsaw Pact. Or how the Red Army, while advancing, crippled local militias and was implicated in mass rape once it got to Berlin (American soldiers were also guilty of rape – I don’t want to imply the Soviet soldiers were worse than the Allied ones in this way until I read more about it). The violent responses to the riots in Plzen, Czechoslovakia (1953), the attempted Hungarian Revolution (1953), the protests in Poznan (1956) and other ones in Northern Poland (1970) all speak to the complicated kind of “liberation” that came at the end of WWII.
So it’s kinda understandable when the Red Army and it’s popular symbol, our lovely little ribbon, becomes a little complicated depending on where you’re born.
And what’s more, the popular (and, actually, fantastic) miniseries “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (“Семнадцать Мгновений Весны”) paints the Allies as trying to broker a peace with Germany (without Soviet knowledge) that will lead to: a) an early end to the war, b) an American-influenced gov’t in Berlin that utilizes some of the same leaders who ran the Nazi regime and c) collective resistance to the spread of Soviet power in Italy and other states. All of a sudden, the memory of WWII (the last moment where America and what is now Russia were allies) suddenly becomes an anti-American affair, where Americans are seen dealing with and supporting the continuance of fascism.
On the theme of associating contemporary forces with fascism (and thus evoking deeply patriotic sentiments), accusing (with some, though far from complete, legitimacy) the contemporary Ukrainan powers with cooperating with fascist forces or batallions creates a link between intervention in East Ukraine/Crimea and the rescue of East Europe from the Nazis.
Read: for some, the St. George Ribbon becomes (through linking current powers hostile to Russia with fascism) a symbol of current Russian foreign policy. Which then leads to a hesitance in neighbouring countries like Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to use the ribbon. For them, it brings up thoughts of Putin and the contemporary Kremlin administration. Cue some Russians looking at this rejection of the St. George Ribbon and thinking, “wow – why are they disrespecting our collective memory of stopping the Nazis? Guys, didn’t we do this together? Those peeps are jerks.”
So, obviously, a symbol with a rather clear, initial meaning has picked up some additional connotations along the way. Similarly, both red and white poppies have picked up extra meanings. The red poppy, for some, represents the contemporary American/British governments’ relationship with massive arms manufacturers, or with interventionist movements in the Middle East and other parts of the world. And white poppies have picked up connotations of passivity, ignorance, cowardice and general complacency when it comes to the actual practice and politics of peacekeeping.
There are probably only a few people who would question the necessity or “just” nature of the First or (especially) the Second World Wars. But, just as with the St. George Ribbon, the problem is when the poppy (or any token of remembrance) begins to be associated with contemporary military movements and conflicts.
This is one of the biggest complaints that some people have about the red poppy: that it’s not only a symbol of remembrance of the wars past, but is also an active way of supporting current military affairs that may or may not be morally problematic. Invading Germany was one thing, invading Iraq was something else entirely.
See the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), one of the big supporters of the white poppy in the UK. On the front page of their website they discuss how, in 2014, the Tower of London was decorated with poppies (a yearly tradition, it’s implied?) – this is, to them, both a symbol to of the blood constantly spilled as a result of particular military ventures and as an act of downright hypocrisy as the venue (the Tower of London, no less) was then transformed into a dining hall for various arms manufacturers and military personnel. And, as C.J. Chivers wrote in some pretty groundbreaking journalism, arms sales is a pretty dirty business these days (for more on Chivers, see this gem of an article). Having their gala on the site of a recent memorial service for the heroic dead seemed, as even Russia Today (state-sponsored, English-language Russian television) was quick to point out, perhaps in poor taste.
One thing that stuck out to me about my friend’s original post was the line that goes “[the red poppy] stands for the willingness of men and women to stand up for their country and its ideals in time of need.” I can understand wanting to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, or trying to stop a fascist regime from spreading across a continent – but standing up for a country’s ideals?
Okay, so on a surface level all our countries want freedom, peace and proliferation of cat gifs, but it gets incredibly vague the further in you get. Take the Ukrainian conflict: the role that “western powers” had in igniting the revolution is still under heavy discussion – and in Russia, American interests are seen as the leading cause of the conflict (and the documented deaths of nearly 10,000 people to date). Think about interventionism for the purposes of securing oil, or for gaining geopolitical advantage. The kind of language used in the Harper (Canada’s last prime minister before current [¿pretty-boy?] Justin Trudeau) administration with regard to foreign policy was uncritically broad in terms of supporting Ukraine or Israel – but it ignores the fact that there have been abuses in Ukraine on the part of government-sanctioned militias, and in Israel over the course of bombing certain areas of the Gaza Strip. National interests dictate Canada’s use of our military and supply of arms/expertise – this is not something that I want to stand behind. If there is such a thing as right and wrong, it definitely does not fall along the lines of state interest.
While Canadians might be worth dying for, Canada is not. And why stop at Canadians? Should I base my loyalties just on the fact that someone drew a line in the sand and told me that, living in Ottawa, I was more connected with someone in the Yukon than with someone in New York or Mexico (both of which are closer, geographically, than the tips of said Yukon). We’re letting other people define who and what we are suppose to value, and they haven’t proven entirely worthy of that trust.
Thing is, though, these are the actions and intentions of the people on top of the pyramid – the experience of the man with the gun in his hand (with, terrifyingly, guns pointed right back at him) is a completely different experience altogether.
My love for poetry started in a first-year, twentieth-century lit class at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). We’d just gotten through Dracula and King Solomon’s Mines (as examples of late nineteenth century prose), prepping ourselves to dive afterwards into poetry penned during the First World War by soldiers with experience in the trenches.
Wilfred Owen was the lynchpin here – Siegfried Sassoon and others were involved, but it was Owen who unlocked it for me. His “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” were the ones under the knife, and after our professor was done with them some students were in tears. They’re horrible. Like, the poems are incredible but the experiences they describe (and let us in on) are terrifying and a whole new calibre of depressing:
“What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?”
“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling.”
“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, / But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;”
“The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;”
“…watch the white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;”
I was blown back like most of the people in the class. I’d been a kid raised on “Lord of the Rings” and the romanticised images of war that came with it, and so Owen’s vision of combat were very different indeed. The heaviness continued as I read about Owen’s desire to stay himself through the whole process, and then how he eventually snapped into a violent autopilot (other soldiers with him say he changed the day he took control of an enemy turret and started mulching them to bits – winning some kind of medal in the process, but effectively finishing his career in poetry). He died a week before armistice and his mom got the letter the day church bells were ringing out the end of The War. He was 25, two years younger than I am.
I can’t even imagine the dehumanizing potential for a soldier in a conflict – especially a conflict on the scale of the World Wars, or Vietnam/Korea. And when I say dehumanizing, I mean the fact that you basically become someone else’s tool – a thing. Following orders is encouraged and certain expressions of independent thought/action could get you killed or court-martialed (I would to ask my soldier friends more about this – I have no experience of what things are actually like and don’t want to speak for them). Soldiers don’t always get to choose where they go, and humanizing forces like empathy might only end up being yet another thing in the way of getting a job done.
Empathy, in the sense of being able to understand the feelings and opinions of others, would be a huge liability in warfare. I’d imagine you’d go nuts if you kept on fighting/killing an enemy you’re trying fiercely to understand. In Samara, a Russian city, I worked with a British friend who served as a sniper in Iraq – he would tell about the ‘red mist’ you’d see if you got just the right headshot. “You can’t think about it too much,” he said. “It takes a while to get yourself straight after that.” He’s sitting in a Slavic jail right now facing a potential ten years.
I’ve heard different people with combat experience talk about the need, in the moment, to go on autopilot. It’s kill-or-be-killed sometimes, even if in the end there was only the appearance of threat. How can that not mess with your mind? And, coming home, how can you not want that to mean something? Like, to bring significance into the feeling of senselessness?
And if that meaning is, really, the fact that you may have brought peace or stability to a place, imagine how pissed you’d be when someone shows up wearing that white poppy, telling you that everything you’ve done in the hotzone was all just a big joke, that you’re just planting more seeds of instability. Maybe you’ve saved lives. Maybe you’ve made a difference for some families. And some punk from a North American suburb/condo/loft is telling you that what you’ve done, what maybe your friends have died for, means nothing in the end, that the cycle continues. That you’re part of the problem.
Empathy is a hard thing in general because it costs us something. This, I think, is another huge criticism veterans and contemporary soldiers may have of pacifists and other supporters of the white poppy.
In a TEDx talk called “The Power of Compromise,” Edward Truch talks about two types of thinking: Type 1, which is fight-or-flight response, and Type 2, which takes slow and deliberative thought. When asked a question about which one will end up with better results in a tricky situation, a lot of people will say Type 2, and for a number of reasons.
But he brings up the example of a person from a hunter-gatherer society hearing a large rumble in the forest. If it’s a tiger and he doesn’t run, he’s lunch. No room for deliberation. If it’s a member of an unknown tribe, then the cost of empathizing and seeking understanding comes with a gamble: if they connect, then maybe they can make an arrangement with both tribes benefiting – if they are enemies, though, then his taking a moment to think things through makes him vulnerable to attack and, well, getting skewered.
A soldier who’s been through the ringer of the front-lines could talk about that – for a peacekeeper walking through the streets wondering if the approaching kid is holding fruit or a land mine, it’s all too real. A pacifist can talk all they like about the need for Type 2 responses, but they don’t know what it costs. And when you tell someone something that’s genuinely helpful, (a potential truth, even) while not knowing what it’ll cost that person, it seems a lot like bullshit. And it doesn’t matter how sound the actual advice turns out to be.
I genuinely, genuinely believe that empathy is one of the keys to whatever it is that progress turns out to be – a kind progress trying to drag along people from all demographics and levels of development, not just from one particular part of the world. And this has only been strengthened after my experience of traveling through Eurasia last summer – I can’t think about that region or its people in the same, abstracted way anymore. Having been close to Syria, Iraq and Iran (and communicating with people from related cultures) makes it more difficult to believe that all this is happening to a people “out there.”
A supporter of the white poppy might say it again and again: war kills empathy, and empathy might be a solution in getting us through this mess.
But to someone in a tank riding down the main street the solution has an awkward side effect: there’s a huge chance it’ll get you killed.
People talk a lot about avoiding “easy answers” – it’s gotten to the point where, if I pick up a potential buy at a bookstore and read on the blurb how the author “bravely avoids easy answers,” I’m most likely just gonna roll my eyes and find something else to read.
Wearing a white poppy can come off as an easy answer by being all “¡peace-love!” without actually thinking about what’s required in working towards that kind of world (I’m looking at my undergrad self in particular). On the other side, wearing a red poppy can simplify the incredibly, terrifyingly complicated experience of combat by passing off national interests as something not just worth dying for, but killing for too.
If you give me enough time and money I hope I’ll make some kind of positive impact. But I’m human too – if you put me in front of a group of people who are advancing, weapons cocked, on a house holding something I cared very, very deeply for, then I might be reaching for a gun too. Doesn’t make it right, but it is certainly understandable.
Every act of killing is a tragedy. Us not feeling it as tragedy is a tragedy that dulls our sense of who we (and they) are as humans. Us feeling it too much as a tragedy might drive us bonkers. And if another government is forcing some unsuspecting guy (who probably works at a bank and has two kids, a dog and a wife he’s separated from [but both are quite hopeful for moving back in soon – just gotta work out a couple issues] and who’s highlight of the weekend might be catching up on the final season of Mad Men or Twin Peaks) to come at me with a gun, then we’re both scared out of our pants and pulling triggers like mad.
This is a zero-sum game.
Maybe both poppies can be a symbol of mourning – that there is something terrible that we feel forced to do in order to stop something else even more terrible from happening. That some people are manipulating us into thinking that something terrible’ll happen if we don’t do that terrible thing. And how there’s so much money and power and influence bound up in everything that it’s not going to stop. Probably ever. And so we mourn in a situation that seems like a closed loop.
There is a language of “honouring” that comes along with poppies and Remembrance Day ceremonies – but that’s such a tricky thing. Should we honour the terrible actions someone had to do, even if they prevented something more terrible from happening? That’s a moral swamp that takes more to parse through than a couple bagpipes, an eternal flame or an unknown soldier can smooth over.
For me, “mourning” is a better, less minefield-ridden concept to filter our poppies through than “honouring” – and the appeal for me in having two poppies is that it broadens our sense of what we’re mourning for. I don’t have to think about whether I’m honouring the actions of our veterans (and, in all likelihood, a number of our veterans probably raped some women over in France or Germany) when I’m mourning the choices they made, the choices they were forced to make and the situation the geopolitics of the day put them into.
The red poppy puts our veterans into focus, as well as the contemporary military, and I can mourn the circumstances which make them exist. And a white poppy, with its focus on various victims of war, opens up not just the civilian casualties but the victims on the other side of the trenches. I don’t have to honour the choices of a soldier in the German army, but I sure as hell/death/taxes mourn their passing all the same.
The same goes not just for Germans or Canadians, but for the wasted lives/minds/capacities-for-empathy of Russians, Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, partisans, Soviets, Nazis, Manchus, nurses, spies, farmers, radio operators, housewives, paratroopers or whoever. Stray dogs, even. Or the kitties. It’s all gone and it’s not coming back.
And, in the end, people are always going to be more willing to cry out for/against the necessity of war than actually analyzing the roots of conflict and try to figure out why we’re doing what we’re doing.
While most films about war mostly play up the “cool” factor, my favourite one (Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”) does its best not just to portray the panic, rage and confusion of war but also to humanize the enemy just as much as the American troops beelining in on them. It’s a poem that tries to dig deeper into the needs we have for conflict, defense and duality, as well as the meaning we try to find in the middle.
Explosions in the Sky, a post-rock band I’m only vaguely acquainted with, took a soundbite from the movie and worked it into their song “Have you Passed Through This Night?” It starts by asking all the right questions.
This great evil.
Where does it come from?
How’d it steal into the world?
What seed, what root did it grow from?
Who’s doing this?
Who’s killing us?
Robbing us of life and light?
Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known.
Does our ruin benefit the earth?
Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?
Is this darkness in you, too?
Have you passed through this night?
Note: the last song’s title translates to (if I remember correctly) “Jesus you hold my hand.” It’s available along with other great pieces on an alternative soundtrack to the film.
Josh Nadeau is currently on the road (¿homeless?) and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.