Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Poppies: What People Have Forgotten

My great-uncle flew in World War II. When the war ended, my dad, who was born in 1941, did what most young boys would do. He asked his uncle to tell him stories about the war. But my great-uncle refused to say anything about the war except for this one story.

He was on a mission, and found himself adrift from the other fighter planes. A German plane saw him and swept in for the attack, but as my uncle prepared to fire, something made him pull his hand off the trigger. The German plane didn't fire either, and my great-uncle put his hand out the window and waved at the other pilot, who waved back. They flew away, and my uncle rejoined his squadron.

That was the only story my "Uncle Ferd" (short for Ferdinand) ever told. The only one. There was a sacredness and seriousness to what he'd experienced on the battle field. Watching his friends die, day after day, witnessing death on sometimes an hourly basis. What my father, like any kid, wanted, were the sensational stories. The ones we see in  movies where people die and then do interviews later about "getting into their character." Or the stories that come from "memoirs," stories about killing warriors and civilians from another country during a phony war and waiting to be called a hero.

My Uncle Ferd wasn't like that. He was from the Greatest Generation, and what he saw on those battlefields he took with him to the grave. The only ones he saw fit to share stories with were others that had been there as well. If you weren't there, you couldn't understand it. And he sure as hell wasn't interested into turning his experience into an entertaining dinner story, let alone a damn book deal or movie deal.

For him, Remembrance Day mattered because it reminded him of his friends. Because you paid your respects for those that died in service to their country. That was why he wore a poppy. It was simple and solemn, and in Canada, those poppies were all made by wounded veterans.


Most of the greatest generation has passed on now. So they haven't been around to witness the change in attitude regarding poppies. And war.

These days, many people and companies and politicians use the poppy as a prop. We have broadcasters facing abuse for not wearing one. We have private contractors and supposed charity organizations making a tidy profit from them. We have people castigating those who choose to wear white poppies instead of red ones, and both groups condemning those who don't wear one at all. Abuse and vitriol, all over a simple plant that used to (solemnly) remind us about those who died in war.

Today, it is a mark on how shallow our society has become. How narcissistic. How completely un-self-aware. People using social media to scream at one group or another, because they're so "outraged."

Here's the thing: it's not about us. It's never been about us

It's about the seventeen and eighteen year-old kids that were told to go slaughter one another, and if they didn't go, they'd be thrown in jail.

So they went. Many died. And every single person who fought in those wars lost friends and family. That's what the poppy is for. To remind  us of that. To step back for a minute and think about it, To really think about what that sacrifice meant.

It has nothing to with politics or how prominently we display the symbol or how self-righteous we are because  we're doing the correct thing or wearing the right fucking colour.

Dammit, it's not about us!

And every time someone posts about it or creates another damn meme, we lose sight of the whole point of Remembrance Day and the poppy.

My Great Uncle passed about ten years ago. He never had to listen or tolerate these narcissistic burst of faux-outrage from people who, for a single day every year, still refuse to consider, truly consider, the price that was paid on those battlefields and at home. Not just here, but all around the world.

My hope is that we can once again get back to the real meaning of Remembrance Day, that we will not idolize a symbol at the expense of that memory, that when we are called to silence, and when the bugle blows, we will indeed remember.

And never forget.