Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why I'm not wearing the poppy this year

It occurred to me a few weeks ago, and it was a disquieting thought. It still is. But it would be meaningless if it weren't. This year, I won't be wearing a poppy.

It really does go against the grain for me. My dad served in the Royal Canadian Navy for two decades. His father was a volunteer in the Second World War and served in campaigns in Italy and France. On my mother's side, one of my great grandfathers died in the Battle of the Somme. All of that means something to me. I don't take it lightly. I myself have never served in uniform, and so I approach the memory of all that with, I think, due reverence.

But they key word there is "due". Respect should come from the heart, and it should be spontaneous and sincere. That's been the experience of it for me, in my lifetime. Just lately, I've begun seeing lines crossed I am not comfortable to see crossed. Not in this country.

Things are different from when I was younger, and in ways I don't agree with. When I was young, we weren't involved in imperial wars. NATO troops were about holding the line in Europe and defending us from invasion: collective security, we called it. When Canadians did go abroad outside the alliance, it was as peacekeepers, their presence mutually-requested by belligerents, working under the UN flag. Wherever we went, we were invited. Respected. People believed in peace and our actions backed up our words.

I'm disturbed by the trends today. Now, at least since the Balkans War, NATO troops go gallivanting off under the flag of that supposedly-defensive alliance to invade other people's homes: collective projection of force. We've perverted the idea of "peacekeeping" to include invasions where we spoon feed other people our cultures and values, insisting we know what's best because we're wealthy and stronger than they are. Millions of Canadians drive around our cities and towns with "Support Our Troops" magnetic ribbons cynically slapped on the backs of their gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks, little more than the modern version of slavery advocates who waxed eloquent about bringing the word of God to the heathen masses.

When I was a boy, Remembrance Day was a big occasion. We would spend days in class reading about it, preparing for it, creating decorations and writing poems about the fallen and the horrors of war. We would have assemblies. It was even a day off where I lived. In short, it was about highlighting the strangeness of war, how foreign it was to our lives and experience, how unthinkable and deadly it was, and how grateful we needed to be for that and to those who answered the call when there was no choice.

But today, we choose wars. We don't remember the fallen with bitterness and sorrow, ordinary people lost needlessly to human failings, but instead we glorify the loss itself, elevating those who die, or even just serve, to something higher, sometimes hinting at the sort of post-facto deification of great men in the Roman Empire. I find this an unsettling change in the nature of our society.

I spent most of my childhood in a city that was effectively a huge military base with its collateral industries and services. But even there, there was a dividing line between the military and the civilian aspects of life. Highways and buildings and parks had bland, ordinary names, having to do with their function or geography or in memory of politicians who shaped our lives. But now, even here in Ontario, in just the past year I've seen the stretch of the 401 between Trenton and Toronto redubbed "The Highway of Heroes", and an ongoing attempt to rename the Don Valley Parkway "The Veterans Memorial Parkway". This need to retroactively rebrand the casual things of ordinary life with a military stamp, to force a kind of automatic salute from everyday people, to inject a military note into the melody of civilian life... it alarms me. This was not the way of things even during the Cold War; in fact, it seems to have effectively been brought about by its end. It's as though once the real consequences of taking military action were gone, the restraints came off, and suddenly this ugly blossom was free to open. Those darker, ancient urges at the base of our brainstems could speak their names again in daylight.

I respect our veterans for the things they did, particularly those who really did fight in war and those who suffered and died. But we have so many appropriate venues to express that respect. Remembrance Day (if only we would give it its due again). The cenotaphs to be found in every Canadian village and town. The National War Memorial on Parliament Hill; indeed, the National War Museum in Ottawa. Vimy Ridge in France: a memorial to a country's sacrifice on par with anything else the world has to offer — I might go so far as to say, in some eyes, unparalleled. But to force it into our consciousness and subconsciousness on a normal level, to cause us to wade through it on our way to work and school and in our entertainments and diversions, these are dangerous inclinations that ought to be resisted. They're actually a violation of the things for which those long ago sacrifices were made, the very things that gave rise to the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we now disregard, scoff at, or circumvent while paying them lip service only. There were reasons people came together to create them, and we are in danger of forgetting all that, and replacing it with a casual, blasé acceptance of the permanence and even desirability of violence. This is what we're telling young people today... it's very different from what I was told, no matter how subtle the change might seem.

I'm not wearing the poppy this year. It's because I hope to recover the Canada the poppy made. We're losing it, if it isn't lost already.

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