Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why I'm Not Wearing a Poppy This Year

I used to be a schoolteacher, and every Remembrance Day, I would teach that we remember the brave people who fought for us, but also to remember the tragedies of history so as not to repeat them. This was particularly important, to ease children's fears of death brought on by discussion of war. I taught the children how to make their own poppies out of construction paper.

Remembrance Day has always been important to me. Being of Japanese descent, my Father and uncles - all born in Canada - were imprisoned during WWII by their own government, along with the entire Japanese Canadian community, and when they were released, they pressed for the right to take part in Canada's war efforts to prove their loyalty to Canada, and when granted that right, they did just that. I've always felt obliged to wear a poppy in respect to those who fought to protect our country and our freedoms - especially because a number of those people are my own relatives.

But in recent years I've become aware of the controversies over modern wars, and Canada's involvement of them - not really wars at all, but unprovoked invasions. Canada did not send troops to Iraq, although Chretien wanted to; he was stopped by public outcry. Canada did, however, send troops to Afghanistan to free up American troops to fight in Iraq. The atrocities committed against Iraqis and Afghanis continue to be revealed by a reluctant mainstream media. Nevertheless, the majority of Canadians believe that the Iraq invasion was wrong, that American war resisters are right to refuse to take part, and that Canadian troops must be brought home from Afghanistan. These "wars" are not about conquest or defending our rights and freedoms; they are about stealing resources and keeping the war economy healthy.

On the other side of these facts is a Canadian government which is waging a propaganda campaign with attempts to conceal and minimize stories of our soldiers who have died senselessly. It seems we are reminded to honour the brave men and women who fight for us at every turn, with "wear red" campaigns, "support our troops" ribbons on our cars, highways renamed as memorials, memorial coins in our pocket change (special designs on circulation coins: a loonie, a nickel, and at least three different quarters), and even in the cancellation stamp on my mail this morning. Of course, these campaigns - all showing government involvement - are simply well-intentioned attempts to honour our soldiers. Aren't they?

With so many of these questionable actions - while the government tries to bolster flagging support to keep troops in Afghanistan, it is no wonder the poppy is called into question. So I was delighted, a couple of years ago, to learn about the "peace poppy": a white poppy which specifically emphasizes the message of peace - which I'd felt was an integral part of our familiar red poppy all along. But was I wrong? I'd gotten the impression that the white poppy didn't go over well with veterans' groups; this year, the Royal Canadian Legion, which owns the trademark to the poppy, is threatening to sue distributors of the white poppy. A Legion spokesperson says, "The use of the poppy for anything other than remembrance is not acceptable." Come again? Since when is promoting peace in opposition to remembering our war dead?

The really fucked up thing here is that, growing up in a capitalist society, I'd accept the economic greed argument - that the Legion owns the trademark and wants to protects its poppy sales - before I'd want to accept that veterans are arguing against peace. But that appears to be what is happening. In another of many articles on this issue published over the last week, one veteran criticized those wearing white poppies, saying that they had probably never fought in a war.

Why is it that so many people today think that it is acceptable to try to shut down debate by painting those they disagree with as unpatriotic, or uncaring? Trying to take someone else's voice away - by implying that they haven't the right to engage in debate - is a form of censorship. Correct me if I'm wrong, but freedom of speech is one of the rights that was fought for and protected; we are not going to violate that right for the sake of this little argument.

The whole issue has left a bad taste in my mouth. I no longer feel any sense of obligation to put on a red poppy, and if people can't understand the very elementary message of the white one, well, I won't wear that one either. No one can take my feelings or beliefs away from me, and I won't have them misconstrued by people standing on street corners selling plastic flowers.

And so, on November 11, 2010, instead of a poppy, I am wearing this blog post.

To those who would judge me for having bare coat lapels: judge not, or be prepared for an earful.

To my Dad, who fought to protect Canada, and our freedoms: all my love, respect, and appreciation. I'm so proud of you. I always have been.

To the American war resisters - who are putting a human face on an illegal and immoral US invasion: all my love and support. You are the kind of people this world needs, and to those of you I've met: we're lucky to have you in Canada. On Remembrance Day, we should be remembering the horrors of war, present as much as past - and that means talking about your part in history. You give me hope for our future.


Kim_in_TO said...

Ex-SAS soldier blasts Poppy Appeal as a 'political tool'

Richard and Christine said...

Every time I hear someone say "If you won't stand behind the troops be sure to stand in front of them" I can't help but think why - because you want them to shoot me and actually think they would.

Mikey6771 said...

Most brilliant Remembrance Day piece I've read in a long time. Thank you.

ChanMul said...

They won't stop me from wearing a white poppy.

Brian Aguinaga said...

First let me say that I find what your father, uncles and many other Japanese-Canadians were subjected to during WWII is a stain on Canadian history and honour that can never be erased.

As for the Legion's poppy trademark and the white poppy, I think that there are a couple of important points that should be made.

First of all, the red poppy has been used in Canada since 1926 as a method to collect funds that are held in trust for use for the direct benefit of Canadian war veterans and their families. None of these funds are allowed by the Legion to be used for any other purpose. In addition, the red poppies are distributed as a symbol of remembrance of all who suffered and died in the service of Canada in wartime. While Canadians may have varying views on government policies past and present regarding international conflicts, I think few can find a valid justification for not honouring the soldiers, sailors and air personal who put their lives on the line for what they feel is an honourable cause.

Secondly, the white poppy was established in England in 1933 to piggyback on the popularity of the red poppy, but in the cause of peace instead of remembrance. I believe that you would have a hard time finding a veteran who would argue against the ultimate goal of peace or for the "glory" of war. No one who has experienced the true horror of battle finds war to be anything that should be honoured nor glorified. However, the white poppy is in the end a commercial venture to raise money for the benefit of the groups who choose to distribute them. On the other hand, red poppies are distributed by the Legion freely with donations being gratefully accepted without being required. In other words, you don't have to pay for your Legion red poppy if you choose not to do so. The Legion would rather see you wear a poppy for free in the name of remembrance. In addition, since, as I have already said, red poppy funds go only towards the direct support of veterans and their families, any funds diverted to the sale of white poppies are funds that will not benefit our veterans directly. This is the true reason that the Legion is so adamant about the protection of its trademark. Unfortunately, this point doesn't always get expressed in such a clear manner.

I would hope that you and those who share your views would reconsider wearing a red poppy tomorrow because it is not the Legion nor the government that you are punishing by not wearing one, it is the veterans themselves. - Brian

Kim_in_TO said...

Thanks for the comments, all!

Thanks for your facts and arguments. What concerns me, though, is that the poppy has been co-opted - if not by a government trying to prop up a useless campaign in Afghanistan, then by veterans who do the Legion a disservice by disparaging those who would protest today's armed conflicts. I think it's wonderful to raise funds for veterans and their families. But today's soldiers in Afghanistan are tomorrow's injured veterans, suffering from PTSD and severe physical disabilities - and therefore needing financial aid from a government which is spending billions of dollars on military equipment and turning its back on the men and women it has sent into combat. If helping war veterans is really the main focus, then how can we not do everything we possibly can to prevent more deaths, injuries, and more families needing financial aid?

There are too many worthy charities out there. If the Royal Canadian Legion really wants to generate poppy sales, it needs to do very much better to engage today's Canadian public. It can start by standing up against the idea of sending soldiers to their deaths in a battle they can't win. It can speak out against the government's efforts to extend the occupation - as it is doing now (and as we knew it would). And most importantly, if poppy sales are so important, why can't the Legion make the poppy - the most powerful symbol of Remebrance Day - a symbol of peace, and make the white poppy obsolete? Remembrance Day is not just about remembering soldiers; it is about acknowledging the horrors and folly of war; it is about learning from our mistakes and saying "never again".

PS: the white poppy I wore a couple of years ago was given to me, free. Clearly, the white poppy campaign is not simply about profit either.

alleycatb said...

One other poppy fact until 1996 the poppy was manufactured by disabled vets, thus generating a dignified and much needed income. After 1996 it has been privately manufactured, and now is being made by prisoners who work for $4.60 a day. I do agree with the fact the money is raised for veterens and others who are in emergency situations, however because the legion is being so vocal and also parroting the government voice on this one. I too will not be wearing the poppy. If you wish to help the cause you can donate money without wearing the poppy. Of course due to the costs and administration making the poppy make sure you give more then a dime to it. I also wrote a post about this controversy If the author of this post would like to see it I would be happy to share

Kim_in_TO said...

Thanks for your comment, alleycatb. Another of my friends had the same suggestion this year about donating without taking the poppy. I like that - especially now that I have seen where the money actually goes.