Friday, November 5

lest we forget

November 5th to 11th is Veteran’s Week in Canada, culminating on Remembrance Day on the 11th. It is the equivalent of Memorial Day in the U.S. It is, in many ways, a weirdly conflicted holiday for me.

Last year I got in a bit of trouble with some respected and valued friends for posting a quote by Noam Chomsky that focused on the yellow ribbon campaign, “Support Our Troops”. I’m going there again, yes I am. This time, though, I’ll try to be clearer about how I feel.

Chomsky’s point in that quote was that PR slogans as ambiguous as “Support Our Troops” are propaganda, and that the ambiguity serves to cloud over a lot of issues. I mean, really, who in their right mind would say they don’t support our troops? “Our troops” are people, like us, flesh and blood. These are men and women that are wiling to put their lives on the line for their countries. Sadly, it takes a war for them to prove it.

And that’s where things get sticky and where propaganda slogans can muddle over a lot of complex, dicey issues. Pointing out that we aren’t fighting any really noble wars these days, or noting the ridiculous death toll among civilians and how lopsided those casualty statistics are, or suggesting that the sophistication of modern indoctrination methods in the military can make soldiers into machines can make it sound like a person doesn’t support our troops. And that’s the point of vague slogans like “Support Our Troops”, because unless one is willing to get into the nitty-gritty of it all and really chew the subject to pieces, it can just sound like one is unsympathetic and unappreciative of the efforts of people who are willing to make supreme sacrifices.

For the record then, just as I felt it last year: I am very sympathetic and appreciative. I treat every service man or woman I meet with respect and gratitude whether they serve now, or served in the past.

I don’t support the war effort though, especially not the current ones. I also have very strong opinions about why our governments have us in the wars we are in, opinions that aren’t very complimentary. I think our governments got us there for all the wrong reasons, and through lies and manipulations. I have concerns about the part that economies play in the martial decisions our governments make, and profit should never, ever be a reason to kill people.

I think that everyone -- soldiers, freedom fighters, mercenaries, the civilians and those left behind who lose people they love – are casualties of war. Nobody gets out of it in tact; not really. Whether it’s directly, or by degrees of separation, we’re all casualties. Even when the cause was good, we were all injured by it. We’re still injured by it, scarred at a cultural level.

I wonder sometimes if those scars remind us, or whether they just deaden nerves and make it easier for us to forget the kind of pain we’re actually capable of inflicting.

In Canada, in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, we buy little plastic poppies to signify our remembrance and wear them on our lapels and jackets. There’s a poem about Canadian soldiers dying in France in World War I called In Flanders Fields that explains why:

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It’s kind of amazing, although I do wish there was no need to pass torches. But that's why we wear poppies to show we remember. Our cenotaphs are inscribed solemnly with the declaration, “Lest We Forget”.

I prefer “Lest We Forget” to “Support Our Troops”. It’s more honest; less ambiguous. It’s not, in any way, disingenuous or manipulative. “Lest We Forget” recognizes that war is just fucking horrible and suggests that nobody really wins; that we need to remember this and not make the same stupid mistakes over and over and over. "Lest We Forget" honors the truth that, if we’re lucky, at its best, the least correct side loses in any given war, but even that’s not a guarantee. It’s all so blurry these days, and every side seems gray-washed. But no, no matter the outcome, nobody wins.

I wear a poppy during veteran’s week, I do. And I observe the minute of silence on the 11th. I wear and observe in honor of the people that have given their lives, made sacrifices big and bigger, for me and for others. I have deep respect for that sacrifice, even when politicians and generals and CEO’s seem wiling to spend lives so carelessly.

I wear the poppy and remember all of them. Not just the ones that wear or wore a Canadian flag, not even just the ones on “our” side. They all lived and felt the dawn, loved and were loved, even the ones that we fought against. And like us, they fought for what they thought were the right reasons too, even when they (and we), were (and are), wrong.

Damn rights I wear my poppy. I’m all for “Lest We Forget”. Let’s have more of it. So far, we haven’t gotten the point.