Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Sorrow, remembrance and blood

Living in The Nation's Capital has an extra resonance in the days leading up to Remembrance Day. Not only are we in close proximity to The National War Museum and key Armed Forces offices and bases, but being resident near Rockcliffe Park, our daughters have attended school with children and relatives of prime ministers and high ranking officers, both foreign and otherwise. Remembrance Day is taken very seriously here. The wearing of the poppy (which, by the way, I think is a rather better-looking poppy than that available in Britain) is not exactly mandatory, but the custom is heavily observed, and Ottawa streets are strewn with lost poppies, dropped from the flimsy pins.

Coming from Victoria, where I grew up between the naval base and the army base (not that pleasant experience for an adolescent girl, soldiers and sailors being what they are), I bring my own strategy for making my poppy stay put. I wrap the end of the pin with scotch tape. However, Ottawans have another excellent method which doesn't work for my thick Irish cape, but does nicely for blouses and lapels. They removed the pin and black felt poppy centre and replace it with a maple leaf or Canadian flag pin, the kind you stick straight though and anchor with a metal clutch on the other side of the fabric.

Lately, there's been a debate in the papers about wearing poppies. A columnist in The Ottawa Citizen worried that poppy-wearing might symbolize support for Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. I was rather startled by this idea as I've never viewed wearing the poppy as supporting the idea of any war. I wear it because I associate it with sorrow, blood, and remembrance.

There has also been a flurry of letters to the editor in the debate over In Flanders Fields, which being written by Dr John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario after watching a close friend die at Ypres and before succumbing to pneumonia himself, is a staple of Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies. John Finnemore recently discussed his problems with the poem in his blog, and once again, I was a bit perplexed. John McCrae was a doctor in the army for both the Boer and First World Wars. He would have seen the very worst war can offer. I don't think he had any rosy ideas about war being glorious or desirable, although I do think he thought it was necessary. The stanza both the writer of the Letter to the Editor and John Finnemore had trouble with was the third one which begins: Take up our quarrel with the foe . . .

Well, I don't boycott plays like The Merchant of Venice for anti-Semitism, nor books like Huckleberry Finn for its use of the "n-word", nor pretty much anything written or performed over the centuries for its depiction of women. Art is a reflection of its era. Good art transcends this. I happen to think both statements apply to In Flanders Fields, which, like the poppy, expresses sorrow, remembrance, and blood.


Nimble said...

I am glad you wrote this. I wear the poppy when I'm in a city to get one. I feel for our veterans and think of my father (a US Marine who did two tours of duty in Viet Nam). Interesting to hear your thoughts.

bonnie-ann black said...

i always buy a poppy for Veteran's Day, as it is called here, because my grandfather was a veteran of the Great War -- having enlisted at age 16, fought in the trenches, was injured, hospitalized and sent to Palestine... he never discussed his experiences and most of his war record was only discovered after we found it at the War Records library in scotland.

"In Flanders Field" is one of those poems i have memorized and recite to myself sometimes, especially when reading about the WWI... i can understand why people today might have some troubled moments with some of the last verses, but i agree -- it is a product of its time, and written by someone who was there... his experiences should count for something.

screamish said...'s a tricky area. If you celebrate the sacrifices made by fallen soldiers are you glorifying war? I'm always a little uncomfortable seeing politicans and contemporary generals/heads of armed forces at remembrance parades. Surely they're/were the ones ultimately responsible? should they be "hijacking" these events?

But it's all mixed up. Loads of veterans are (rightfully so) proud of their units and their experiences and wouldn't call themsleves pacifists...I think the best hope is to find some common ground...