Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Remembrance Day: an outsider's perspective

I've never worn a poppy. I say this not with smug pride, but with a sense of discomfort and disorientation. I don't have a principled objection to Remembrance Day as it currently exists, like Clay McLeod or the Wonderdog; I simply don't understand it well enough to participate in it.

A google image search on "remembrance day" provides a good illustration of why. Paging through, we can recognize several main themes: poppies, gravestones, military and battle symbolism, and Canadian patriotic symbolism. And perhaps that all seems consistent to a Canadian-born Canadian, but to me it's always felt painfully conflicted and incredibly confusing. Remembrance Day is the one day a year when I feel not like an immigrant or a new Canadian, but like a foreigner.

Is it a day where we're supposed to meditate on the horrors of war? If so, then why all the pomp and patriotism, as if the horrors of war were unique to this country?

Is it a day for renewing our commitment to work for peace? If so, then why does so much of the imagery used to observe the day consist of old-time warmaking symbolism, as if to make the argument that war used to be so much more honest when it was fought hand-to-hand and with cannons rather than with smart bombs and computers?

Is it supposed to be about supporting the Canadian military? If so, then why aren't we doing that by making sure the existing soldiers have living wages, decent housing, and working equipment?

Is it supposed to be about honouring those Canadians who have fought in wars? If so, then why the emphasis on World War One and Two veterans to the exclusion of those who fought or are still fighting in more recent wars?

One of the major aspects of observing Remembrance Day involves purchasing and prominently displaying a plastic poppy. The point is clearly to make people who see you wearing that poppy think certain thoughts, and associate you with endorsing those thoughts. But what, exactly, are those thoughts supposed to be? If I could be sure that wearing a poppy meant sending a message like: "Thinking about people who have gotten dragged into the hell of war makes me profoundly sad, and I will strive to put a personal face on their deaths so that their lives won't be forgotten," then I would absolutely follow suit. But given the strange mixture of symbols ubiquitous on Remembrance Day, I'm unconvinced that's the message people would actually be receiving.

I have no answers, only questions.

13 comments:

Scott Tribe said...

I'd suggest this editorial from the Toronto Star today (you may need to freely register to read it.. but its well worth it)

It may help answer your questions.

Q. Pheevr said...

Well, I'm not a CBC, either, but I've decided not to let that stop me from holding forth.

I think Remembrance Day does mean different things to different people, but the core of it is honouring those Canadians who have fought--or otherwise served--in wars. Me, I happen to believe that one of the best ways of honouring them would be to do our best to make sure that others will not have to go through the horrors of war as they have. Not everyone feels this way, though, and so we have a motley assortment of militaristic, patriotic, and pacifist symbols and sentiments. I wear the poppy, and I basically trust that people will not read any more into it than the core meaning of the day.

A colleague at my university writes:
In recent years, there has been a marked increase in student participation in the observation of Remembrance Day [...]. Until the early seventies the university closed on 11 November, and it was students who pressured the administration to end this, arguing that it was a bellicose gesture; it is ironic that it is from students, and only from students, that I hear calls for the suspension of classes from 10.30 to 11.15 a.m.

I don't think the student body has become so much more bellicose since the time of the Vietnam War; rather, I hope that the change in attitude mostly reflects the realization that it is possible to honour those who have died in war regardless of one's opinions about whether they should have been fighting in the first place.

As for why the emphasis on veterans of the two world wars, I think there are two good answers and one bad one. The good answers are (1) that Remembrance Day began as the anniversary of the end of World War I, and (2) that these wars are the oldest ones still in living memory. The bad one is that these wars are perceived as having a moral clarity that the more recent ones lack.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Q,

A very clear and thoughtful response, thank you.

The only thing I would take issue with is your statement about the core meaning of the day. I got into a discussion about this the other day with some of my friends, and several of them stated with absolute conviction that the *real* meaning of the day (and of the wearing of the poppy) is *not* about honouring soldiers, but about reflecting on the horrors of war. Honestly, the more I ask questions about this, the more I become convinced that everybody has a different idea of what the day is about, but assumes everybody else is thinking exactly the same thoughts they are.

And, okay, some people have stated that they're fine with observing the day in whatever way is meaningful to them and aren't bothered by what other people might think. But I'm not comfortable with that for myself when a large part of the tradition of the day is about wearing the poppy. If I'm going to participate in a collective displaying of a symbol, I want a lot more clarity on what that symbol actually means to most people.

I do think a lot of those ways people observe the day are important, though, and probably don't figure prominently enough in my life. So I've been thinking I should find a way to observe it in a more private way that's at least meaningful to me. This year has been all about figuring things out, but I think I'll try that next year.

MikeP said...

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Trevor J. said...

At the risk of confusing you further/burdening you with irrelevant information, these debates aren't unique to Canada, as it happens. Remembrance Day, poppies and all, is observed in other parts of the Commonwealth - chiefly, the UK itself, and Australia and New Zealand - and the same sort of confusion and disagreement about what the day and the poppy symbolises has been known to break out in those countries also. For my part, here in Australia, I'll usually buy & wear a poppy on the 11th - although I, too, am never entirely sure about the rights and wrongs of wearing it, nevertheless a) the day in Australia seems (to me, at least) to be more about contemplating the futility of war, etc, then celebrating war or perpetuating it; b) I know the money goes to a good cause; and c) the poppy-sellers stop trying to guilt-trip you into buying one when they see you've already done so.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Trevor,

I actually hadn't realized before this year that Remembrance Day was a general Commonwealth holiday, so it's not a silly thing to bring up at all. (Some of the most basic things weren't clear to me before I started asking questions about it, and all my asking really cleared a lot of things up. I'm honestly not sure why I waited so long, either.)

Your reasons for buying and wearing a poppy sound like they're probably pretty typical: a combination of tradition, respect, and guilt.

Arrogant Polyglot said...

IP, I agree with much of what you say regarding Remembrance Day. And frankly, I'm not afraid to admit that I haven't worn a poppy in about 20 years. For me to wear a poppy would make make me feel awkward. These events are so unrelated to my current life; I feel that to wear a poppy would be rather hypocritical. I simply cannot endorse the wearing of poppies or the observing of silence because I'm supposed to. This sad, I still permit myself to reflect on how truly thankful I am that my country is what it is today as a rulst of past roles in war.

Arrogant Polyglot said...

...errr... 'result' that is.

Aaron said...

From what I recall, you weren't born in Canada - were you? Maybe it's something you just grow up with, like Christmas and Halloween.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

AP,

Yeah, I can definitely see not wanting to do something just because everybody else is doing it. I wonder if there's a way of turning the rote ritual part of it into something more meaningful, for those who do think there's some merit in Remembrance Day.

Aaron,

You're right that I didn't grow up here. On the other hand, I'm also not a fan of doing something just because it's what you grew up with. I suppose it's the "pragmatist" part of my idealistic pragmatist. I've been questioning pretty much everything I grew up with ever since I could think, including Christmas (which I deliberately stopped celebrating a few years ago) and Halloween (which I still celebrate, but I know exactly why I do).

Danté said...

It's not about you. It's not about people seeing you with a poppy on and thinking, "gee, that person really thinks a lot about the horrors of war, aren't they great!"

It's for the veterans, damn it. It's so they can see people wearing a poppy and recognizing the hell they went through day after day in the mud and the cold and the blood for our right to be free and happy. It's so they know that they aren't forgotten, and that yes, it wasn't in vain.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Danté,

That may be what it means to a lot of people, and I respect that. But you don't speak for everyone. I asked an awful lot of Canadians this year about the meaning and function of Remembrance Day, and I got responses from at least four separate viewpoints. And people representing each of these viewpoints were all quite insistent that their viewpoint was representative of the core meaning of the day.

Like I said to Q. Pheevr above, I'm becoming convinced that there are a lot of different ideas of what the day is about, but everybody assumes everybody else is seeing it in exactly the same way they are.

Anonymous said...

Well, I wear a poppy for a few reasons:

1. To remember that the two world wars were a terrible fact of life for our ancestors, so that hopefully we won't repeat it (kinda a spin-off of "those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it").

2. To help the Royal Canadian Legion raise money for its charity work.

It may be interesting for you to know that while I was in school, the day before Remembrance Day everybody in the school would gather around, pictures of the war (some of them were gruesome) were shown and the effects of things like mustard gas were read. Basically, the goal was to pound into people's head that war is not a desirable outcome.

Well, hope that helps.