Saturday, November 08, 2014

The poppy debate

I've come to notice that there is a growing number of people who won't wear the red poppy anymore for Remembrance Day. Their reasons are varied. Some won't wear it because they are against violence or against war. There are some who don't believe it's necessary to honour dead soldiers. Some avoid the poppy in protest of their government's misuse of support for soldiers by sending more soldiers in harm's way to places or for missions we don't agree with.

Whatever the reason, I understand. I'm not pro-war either, even though I served for 20 years in the Canadian military. I'm not pro-violence. I've never picked a fight with anyone, ever. I only hit someone once. I was full of rage and I will regret that for the rest of my life even though some would say they deserved it. I understand that our government uses the public’s support of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their own means. But I don't agree with those who think that not wearing a poppy is the answer. Because it sends the wrong message to the wrong people.

Poppies are worn simply to commemorate the soldiers that died in war. The red poppy was immortalized in the famous poem, "In Flanders Fields," written by a Canadian officer, Colonel John McCrae, a physician. He was intrigued with the poppy, which can lay dormant in the soil for years, and its ability to reappear in great numbers. He immediately associated the poppy to his deep respect for his veteran patients and deceased comrades and he wrote the poem for them. Eventually, the red poppy was used as a symbol of remembrance by the British and Canadian troops, and as a fundraiser to help their disabled veterans. Other countries soon followed in the tradition.

It is important to note that the poppy doesn't symbolize war, nor does it glamorize it. It has always been, and will always be about the veterans and those who died in service of their country. It is not a statement of support for the government and its military aims or missions. It is not a display of support for war or violence or aggression. The people who most appreciate the display are the veterans of past wars and missions and current serving military members and their families. When you wear a poppy, you are sending them a strong, silent message that you value their contribution and the sacrifices of those who came before them.

Now there are some people who would ask, “If you’re not pro-war, why did you join the military?” The answer is simple. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. While on the one hand I will tell you that 20 years in the service of my country was the best thing to happen to me, I did not join to fight or go to war, even though every soldier who joins knows there is always a chance they could find themselves in the shit. I joined partly because my dad was in the Navy and convinced me that it was a smart career move. I joined partly due to peer pressure. I joined partly to earn a free education. But in the late 1970s, Canada was not at war with anyone and our missions were that of peacekeepers. Once the 1990s arrived, our government decided it was time for us to evolve into a combat role and soldiers once again started getting killed. I never deployed to a combat mission before I retired, and for that I am grateful. But I have so much pride for the work we did during the ice storms, the floods, the forest fires, the FLQ crisis, the Oka standoff and security for the Olympics in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.

There are also those who proclaim, “What’s so special about a soldier?” or “They volunteered, they should be ready to do what they signed up to do.” When a soldier gives the oath, they give up any right to change their mind, or even speak their mind. Even when a soldier doesn’t agree with the mission they are sent to do, they have no choice. There is no union rep. Occupational Health & Safety? Please. Soldiers are not allowed to speak their mind to the press. Their job is to obey. I would suggest that every soldier who wears a uniform is depending on you. That’s right. You are their voice. You elect the men and women to Parliament who give the soldiers their missions. They are hoping that if you don’t support the mission, you would say something to your government. But we don’t. We shrug our shoulders and let them go.

But let’s get back to the message. If you don’t agree with our government's military missions, tell your MP. But I believe that the memory of those we have lost, the veterans who still relive the battles in their mind and those who continue to serve deserve a message of support. Because it sends them the message that their sacrifice, their injuries, their hardship, their service, is not without merit. In light of the most recent loss of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the message is more important than ever, because their loss was the result of cowardice and ideology.

And those are my thoughts on the poppy debate.

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