Nov 112008

Photo: :) AliIf you knew I was a science fiction writer, you might assume it’s because I’m eagerly awaiting floating cities or nanotech implants. But actually, it’s the year I figure that all the World War II veterans will be dead.

On November 11th, 2020, we’ll be able to have a discussion that seems ungrateful or spiteful now: were the veterans of World War II heroes, or survivors? Is Remembrance Day actually about thinking about the specific soldiers who died, or about keeping the idea of soldiering alive?

But today, talking critically about Remembrance Day feels like spitting in the faces of the old men who sell poppy pins. These guys have every reason to believe: they have seen and sometimes done horrific things that are only redeemed by the idea that war is necessary and honourable. And for those of us who buy and wear the poppies, it’s a way to participate in history — a history that we don’t understand, but are grateful for.

I grew up feeling like that. I recited “In Flanders’ Fields” for my elementary school ceremony, and to this day it’s the only poem I know off by heart. And as a teenager the glamour and allure of soldiering hooked in deeper. The idea of being given a gun and told to kill Nazis? Exciting isn’t the word. Ecstatic is closer. To be able to unleash my rage against a clear-cut evil? Too good to be true.

Because it isn’t true, I realized as an adult. Most wars are not like the Good War: armies are weapons that often fall into the wrong hands. And even World War II, an anomaly of moral clarity, can’t be viewed in a vacuum. The Germans were primed for it, vulnerable to Hitler’s charismatic insanity, from the humiliation and punishment they received as the losers of World War I. People seem to forget that WWI was fought for relatively stupid reasons. Poppies induce forgetfulness, after all.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to draw out the opiate metaphor. I’ll leave that for the broader and more divisive debates of 2020 when we can take off the kid gloves. Today, as you go around town, squint a little and see what I see whenever I see a poppy on someone’s chest: not a flower, but a bullet wound. Because more than anything else, wars are about red holes blooming in the chests of average, well-intentioned people.

  14 Responses to “Why I Can’t Wait Until 2020”

  1. Thank you for managing to express in words something I’ve wrestled with intellectually as I’ve grown up. War needs to be remembered, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with the stately undertones of glory and worthy sacrifice implicit in Remembrance day, and unable to express why without offending people.

  2. Wow. The poppy/bullet hole image is devastating and true… a heartbreaking anti-war brand. Spread the word!

  3. I’ve been thinking similarly recently and I doubt there is any date at which, living or dead, the persona of the brave infantryman won’t be propped up for Remembrance Day. I have alternately worn, and not worn, poppies over the years. It’s true that we must not just remember war but understand it as a present thing.

    Many have interpreted John McCrae’s poppies as stand-ins for battlefield blood and they are a somewhat more effective symbol for one of the basic fuels of war if they are thought of that way. But it still makes things a bit too simple doesn’t it?

    No one will question that many mostly young men and women died in service of war but what has to be questioned is the validity of past and present wars. If only more people could understand that being critical of war-making isn’t an attack on soldiers.

  4. While I understand the intent of the message, I can’t side with it. Strictly a biased take on it, of course, because my grandfather – who I dearly love – is among Canadian WWII vets. To look forward to a day when he (or anyone) is dead simply isn’t something I can get on board with, and I’m frankly surprised anyone can.

    I also have a doctor cousin who recently returned from a Medicines Sans Frontiers tour, leaving his family behind to help the civilian victims caught in a war that never was, and never will be, his. Should such personal sacrifice be shunned because it was amid a war which should never have happened?

    In all the years I have marked Remembrance Day, not once was I thankful of the wars themselves, but rather the people who made the choice – as so many today wouldn’t – to selflessly defend and lend aid to total strangers; human compassion for humans.

    The wars don’t deserve our respect. The people who fought and lent aid in them do, and always will.

  5. Great post, I have shared those feelings. My partner is a veteran of the South African war in Angola – he was sent at the age of 16 to scrape burned bodies off the ground and ended up shot in the back by someone on his own side, out of his head on speed (supplied by the S.A. government). Nothing glorious about that.

  6. Talk with any veteran who has survived combat duty and they will agree with you that war should be abolished. But until everyone is in agreement with the idea, we will always have those in power who see an opportunity to gain an advantage by waging war. Personally, I’m not prepared to ask the troops to stand down until I’m sure there is no enemy who would do us harm.

    But your point is well taken and your imagery is poignant. Thanks.

  7. We don’t need 120 seconds of silence once a year to keep the idea of soldiering alive – soldiers will be necessary as long as there are states. Even after all the veterans of WWII are dead and gone, there will still be veterans of the Korean War, and the current Afghanistan conflict, who will be every bit as deserving of our respect and gratitude.

    And, of course, the point isn’t just to honour the living, but also the dead.

    Debating the justness or necessity of a given war is crucial to a functioning liberal democracy, of course, but Rememberance Day isn’t the time. It’s about the people, not the politics.

  8. […] I feel so ambivalent on this day. This strange duality. I completely understand the sentiments expressed on the No Media Kings website. And I like the symbolism of poppies as reminding of flanders fields, as red bullet holes, and poppies as part of the drug wars. I was also taken by the line: Poppies induce forgetfulness, after all. […]

  9. Jim –

    You may find ‘Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag’- linked in the website section above – to be of interest.

    The book focuses on U.S. practice and the symbolism of its particular rites (Memorial Day, Flag Day, 4th of July, etc.) which are much more nationalistic than what occurs in Toronto, but the book’s anthropological analysis can just as well apply to Canada’s British-based rituals.

  10. Thanks for your perspectives, everyone. It’s heartening to me that this issue can be broached in a civil way.

  11. That was an interesting post, Jim.

    In my opinion, the problem is that we have different coloured passports. I have long believed that the only answer to world peace, global warming, etc. lies is making the world into one country. Canada, America, China etc, must cease to exist. They must become regions or provinces. The soldiers from all mations must disband and form new brigades under the direct control of the United Nations. They must become international brigades, a kind of multi-national police force who should enforce a world constitution. They would ensure that the resources of the world are harvested by the UN and distributed equally to all people, that environmental laws were upheld, that no ethnic clensing / genocides took place and so on.

    I believe that internationalizing power is also the only true solution to environmental problems such as global warming. As we see with the current problems with the Kyoto ratification process, the logic of Bush/Harper and others is “why should my country take action while others do not?” As a result, no action is taken. I believe that we are on the brink of disaster. We need to internationalize, and as citizenss of the world, we need to choose an international government that would act in the true best long term interests of humankind.

    That is my 0.02.


  12. I don’t really know how to respond to this, yet I feel like I must say something. I don’t know a REAL combat vet that thinks war is glorious, glamorous, or even particularly patriotic. It is horror stacked on top of horror until the edges of the accrued events overlap and become a bitter blur in the memories of the survivors. No survivor celebrates war. Only morons celebrate war. I think the survivors deserve the recognition and thanks from the country they served, but that does not imply war should be celebrated in any way. War is an abhorrence.

  13. I understood the poppy as a symbol for peace and regret for many years. I don’t think the symbols need to change, it’s how the meanings are defined and who gets the power to do that. I liked reading this post.

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