Those of you in the Commonwealth have likely grown up with the tradition of the red poppy. Supplied by legions and veteran’s groups for the better part of the last century, the felt, paper or plastic flowers emerge every year to remind generations of people that they owe their very freedoms to the men and women who joined or supported the forces and sacrificed a great deal for future generations. The message has never been about an abject pro-war agenda. Pacifists, anti-war protesters and conscientious objectors alike wear the red poppy annually as well. But that hasn’t stopped an onslaught of vitriol taking over the minds of otherwise rational humans when a white poppy is seen.
White poppies are as old as their red counterparts and were designed and distributed in the early days by those who lost children, partners, parents and so much more. Their goal was not to shame red poppy wearers but rather to remind them that peace can be real too. These people often lost jobs, had relationships slashed – denied the very freedom of speech soldiers gave their lives for. Persistent to give peace a chance before John Lennon was born, the white poppy people continued to remind others that yes, war happens and we should be grateful for that these battles give us. But they are not an absolute requirement of life, that they can be mitigated or avoided all together.
Yet here we are in the year 2013, and the debate has reached its annual feverpitch. It’s commonly understood that the only way to show your thanks to veterans is to put your change in the little box at your coffee shop or subway station and to wear a red poppy with pride for the fortnight before November 11th. Anyone who bucks this tradition must surely have contempt for it. White poppy wearers are seen as such, regardless of their personal reasons for taking this stand. Red poppy supporters, when they actually put words to emotions, claim white poppy wearers are making a political statement where one shouldn’t be – that wearing a red poppy doesn’t mean that you’re pro-war. But that’s a false equivalency. Just because the white poppy is anti-war, doesn’t mean that the red poppy is pro-war. Just because white poppy wearers abhor global levels of organized and sanctioned violence doesn’t mean they don’t respect and value the sacrifices of veterans. Such reflection is not a zero-sum thing: our hearts and memories are bigger than these trifles.
I wear a red poppy each year and not a white one. There’s nothing more to this than the fact that I haven’t seen any white poppies being distributed along my daily travels. I have reasons to wear both – red for family who has fought in wars, either to their death or with their lives spared. I also have family that was turned down when they tried to enlist because their services were needed elsewhere, such a rubber manufacturing factories that produced the very munitions the front line needed. I have family that fought for the good guys and the bad guys, and I have family that still have strong memories of living on rations and interacting with soldiers as civilians.
The poppy as a symbol is just that – a stand-in for all the thoughts, memories, feelings and actions we wish to convey about the topic. We must recognize that these sentiments will vary greatly from person to person. For me, the red poppy is a direct symbol of the names and faces our history books will never account for – never mind the Arthur Curries and the George Pattons. Their valour has been and will be rewarded tenfold as time creeps forward. The red poppy in my mind is for the generations of men who never got to see their children grow up, to know what it is to be in love, to eat their mom’s home cooking once more. Rightly or wrongly, these men were thrown into battle on a tidal wave of enthusiasm, shame, ignorance, pride and force. Each body represented the livelihood of those questing for freedom, including the very ancestors that put us here on earth today.
The white poppy, less romanticized as it may be, represents the sacrifices of those who ought not to make them. Mothers who were forced to raise children alone, parents losing their only reason for living, people killed in battles they didn’t know they were a part of, euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’. Those who starved as their leader blockaded basic supplies as his ransom. The anguish Hersey describes in Hiroshima. Pain I will never ever know, no matter how old I live to be. The white poppy is for these people, those who went through hell only to find nothing on the other side. Their immediate sacrifice and the hope that further instances can be avoided predicates my every thought. It has no lesser gravity because it wasn’t on the main stage.
I hope that going forward, we can remember not just those who chose their paths, but those who didn’t. That we can use this dark part of our history to find light in the future. Things don’t have to be as they were; we still have the ability to change and shape our future, to move away from the senseless violence and destruction war entails. I’m reminded of the words Thomas King writes in his Massey Hall lecture: “why we tell our children that life is hard, when we could just as easily tell them that it is sweet.” We don’t have to settle for remembering ghosts when the future is ours and full of life.
Originally posted on my blog. Sorry it's long! I have a lot of feels on this.