My facebook page this morning is filled with signs of remembrance…red poppies in fields, on lapels, against a background of faded battle photos. And one white poppy.
It’s a day that troubles me every year. As a young person, I was an unconditional pacifist, a child of Quaker parents. War could never be the answer. As I’ve grown older, I’ve watched most of my ideas of absolute truth dissolve into the murky world of conditions and exceptions. This one, too. Sometimes, I have to conclude, armed conflict may be the only answer. But when that is the case, it is because of a colossal failure of imagination: an inability or unwillingness to sort out the knots in the tangled web of human interactions until they become intractable; an unwillingness to compromise our own self-interest when confronted with individuals or regimes that cross the boundaries of human decency; a failure to respond to the human suffering that leads to desperation and, ultimately, violence. I have trouble seeing it as noble.
I don’t wear a poppy. Sometimes, I feel a bit ashamed about that. I know that Remembrance Day isn’t supposed to celebrate war. It asks us to remember those who fought the wars that represent our failures—mostly young men who were paying the price of their parents’ and grandparents’ inability to find a better way. Yesterday, I walked past the cenotaph in our little town and stopped to read the names engraved in the stone. Familiar names: fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and cousins of people I know. It’s hard not to be awed by the willingness of these young men—on all sides of a war—to die in a conflict not of their making, believing they were making the world a better place.
But in the rhetoric that accompanies this day, I find it hard to separate the glorification of these young victims from glorification of the events, themselves. I can’t glorify those, and I can’t celebrate the military might that makes war seem acceptable and inevitable. I’d also like to find a way to recognize those who said no, who resisted the call to arms by declaring their opposition to war—an act of immense courage and one rarely honoured. I’d like to say thank you for reminding us of “the better angels of our nature.”
Enter the white poppy. It’s been around since the 1920s, shortly after the red poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance, but I’d never heard of it before this year. It disappeared during the Second World War, but began reappearing in the 1980s as a sign of protest against armed conflict. It’s British in origin, but apparently available in Canada. I have no idea where I might find one, but I would gladly wear it as a way of saying, “Yes, I remember. And I’m sorry.”