The White Poppy

Posted on November 10, 2011


Every day on my way to school, I pass by a quaker meeting house. About a week ago, I noticed that they were selling white poppies for a small donation. I decided to pick one up, and I have been wearing it on my coat for the past week. The British aren’t quite as religious about poppies during November as we are back in Canada, but I did wind up in one amicable yet contentious discussion about why I had chosen a white poppy over the more traditional red one. I had trouble articulating exactly why I decided that the more traditional red poppies do not suffice for how I would like to commemorate remembrance day. So I thought that I’d have a go at explaining myself here. Here goes.

There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of the poem In Flanders’ Fields. Written by John McCrae, a Canadian medic in the first world war, it was recited at so many church services and school assemblies that I can now recite it by heart. In this context, my attention is primarily on the third and final stanza:

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 blow, 
in flanders’ fields.

While the rest of the poem is beautifully mournful, this last part is quite different. It would not be out of place on a recruiting poster, and its tone has been readily apparent in every remembrance day ceremony that I have ever been to. It would be an overstatement to suggest that the annual gatherings at cenotaphs glorify war, but the martial displays, gun salutes, and fly-overs don’t exactly qualify as a strong condemnation either.

Strictly speaking, I am not a pacifist. I detest all violence, but I recognize that there are times when war is the only way to save lives. I affirm, furthermore, that a small handful of things such as democracy, equality, and basic justice that are worth fighting, killing and dying for if it is the only way to preserve them. This does not mean, however, that this process should be seen as anything less than a tragedy. The best metaphor I can think of for my thoughts on the matter came from an unlikely source: a recent episode of The Walking Dead (spoilers follow). A botched attempt to retrieve some medical supplies necessary to save a dying boy leaves two characters being chased down a road by horde of zombies. It looks grim: they are both injured, there is over a mile to go before they will reach safety and the zombies are gaining. So one of them makes a decision. He tells the other that he is sorry, then shoots him in the leg, takes the medical supplies and leaves him behind to distract the zombies while he hobbles away. It’s a horrific scene, but there is an upsetting ethical logic in the decision. Had such action not been taken, both characters would have been eaten by zombies while the child back home died for want of medical care. One person was horribly sacrificed to save two. (end spoiler)

That is much how I feel about war. In the extraordinary rare circumstances where war is the utilitarian choice, it is nevertheless a horrific, ugly, deeply scarring thing that permanently scars every person and every nation involved. Every single casualty on all sides of a war is a full life that could otherwise have been lived, but had to be horribly sacrificed. The justification of this sacrifice does not reduce its unspeakable tragedy. We must see war this way, so that we use it only as a last resort in circumstances where the alternative is even more unbearable. The rifles, fighter jets, tanks and canons that are so proudly displayed at remembrance day ceremonies are the tools of mass murder, and even justified mass murder is still mass murder. At remembrance day, we should be mourning the horrible waste of life and potential that has been demanded in conflict, rather than reaffirming and demonstrating our willingness to repeat that waste if the need should arise in the future.

I think that the second stanza of John McCrae’s poem is far more appropriate for the occasion than the third. I cannot find better words to finish this post. Please take a moment to appreciate them.

We are the dead, short days ago
we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
loved, were loved, but now we lie
in Flanders’ fields.
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