Monday, November 13, 2006

November Eleventh

This is an interruption to the Calfornia report, but I want to post it while it is still almost topical. I meant to post it on the eleventh but I hadn't yet had a chance to type it up.

In Canada November 11th is a statutory holiday called Remembrance Day. At 11:00 am on the eleventh day, school classes, radio and television stations, and many places of work simply stop activity to observe two minutes of silence. Every town has a cenotaph, a memorial to soldiers from that community. Their names are usually listed on the monument. It's common for the cenotaph to date back to just after World War I, with the 1914-1918 dead listed on one face of the monument and then as you walk around the monument another face will list the 1939-1945 dead. On Remembrance Day there is usually a public ceremony at the cenotaph, where the mayor and other diginitaries lay wreaths, and surviving veterans attend in uniform to be honoured as well. There might be a fly-by of vintage aircraft in missing-man formation, and maybe some speeches.

It's actually more like Remembrance Fortnight, because around the end of October, people start wearing poppies, as a symbol of remembrance. I've never seen anyone wear a real poppy, but as long as I can remember, volunteers have distributed little plastic and felt pin-on poppies in return for donations to veterans' organizations. I've seen a lapel poppy from England, and it was a different style from ours, but still recognizable.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a man standing on a Canadian street corner, carrying a donation box that was absolutely stuffed with green banknotes. The green ones are twenties in Canada--more than the usual donation for a street-corner poppy, but he was more than the usual person giving them out. He was at least seventy, but fit and trim, standing up straight wearing a green military jumpsuit with faded embroidered patches. He was so dynamic that everyone had to stop and talk to him, and donate for a poppy. I intended to tell you which regiment he had served with, but it turns out that the Duke of Edinburgh shoulder patch isn't enough to identify it, as the Duke is patron to multiple regiments across the country. Someone asked him what year the uniform was, and he said 1953.

I gave him a donation, and he pinned a poppy on my coat. I said thank you, for the poppy, and then I thanked him also for his service to my country. Then I turned away to continue on my errands, and because my voice was cracking. It means a lot to me that people volunteer to fight the battles that we determine are worth fighting. I'm sure they volunteered for all kinds of reasons: to defend the innocent, to prove their worth, to live up to community expectations, for the money, for the travel, to get away from home, or just because all their friends were going. They were probably sometimes scared or bored or lonely and lots of them died. There are still Canadians dying and being wounded in Afghanistan, and I try to remember them all, as I wait for the light to change.

A young Japanese woman, probably an exchange student, indicates my poppy and asks me what it is for. She has noticed that almost everyone is wearing one. I'm taken aback for a moment, because I was under the impression that the 11th day of the 11th month was remembered as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day or the like around the world. I explain that it is to remind us to remember the soldiers in all the wars, that it is not a victory celebration, but to honour those who fought. "You could wear one too," I tell her. She says thank you, maybe for the explanation, maybe for the acknowledgement that soldiers from her country also died in wars. The light changes and we walk away.

A week later, I was in California, watching the news with a couple of members of the Canadian nerd herd I'd come south with. There had just been an election and the outcome could change the balance of power in the Senate and House, legislative bodies which presumably ratify decisions affecting American soldiers, and therefore soldiers of America's allies and enemies. Watching the footage, I noticed an odd thing.

"None of the newscasters or politicians is wearing a poppy," I said. In Canada, anyone putting forward a public face would be wearing one. It crosses political lines, because we're not honouring the decision to send soldiers to fight, nor the causes they fight for, we're honouring the individuals. I've never heard of anyone shunning poppies because they disagreed with a war or a peacekeeping mission.

"Maybe," it was suggested, "November 11th isn't such a big deal here."

"Or maybe they just don't have poppies. After all, a Canadian wrote the poem."

I've since checked to see if the poppy was a mostly-Canadian thing, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The first Google hit on "In Flanders Fields" is from the Arlington National Cemetary site, and the next one is from Belgium. As this Australian site says, "The poppy soon became widely accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day." It certainly means that in Canada. We have a circulating coin with a red-coloured poppy on it. User Friendly is a cartoon that is usually silly, often geek-topical, but that took the day off making jokes for the commemoration.

As it turns out, I was with Canadians on the eleventh, but we didn't time our day properly, so we were driving at 11 a.m. (we actually got it mixed up and were thinking 11:11) and just after we parked we noticed with regret that we had missed the appointed hour. "Ah well," said one of my companions, "In gratitude for their sacrifice, let us now go and have a good time enjoying our freedom." And so we did.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for these considerate thoughts. While it is not our obligation to pledge allegiance to a certain country, it is important to remember individuals all over the world who were not lucky enough to live in a peaceful time but in a time where any country was at war with any country. Being a pacifist, I wish there were no armies (or even nation states) at all just as much as I know that this is utopistic and will never work out. Menawhile, I just hope that individual human beings will be able to use their communities and nations as a means to organize their social needs. This way, nations' borders won't need walls and no weapons need be aimed at each other. It may sound like stupid idealism, but I really think the very easy solution is to take patriotism, nations and borders less seriously. I do love the city of Munich, Bavaria which I am lucky to call my home. I don't get too enthusiastic about Germany, my home country, though. I am lucky enough that my grandfathers did not die in WW2 and thus were able to tell me stories about the time when things got screwed up because people got too furious about how great their nation was.

As you say at the top of your post, thinking about soldiers from your community seems far better than putting your killed relatives, friends and neighbours into a nation's context. There are communities sharing the same dreadful experience all over the world, but with nations, there always seems to be good and evil, which is a view that will not lead to less wars in the future.

Dave Starr said...

Nice thoughts on Remembrance Day. As you noted the poppies come from the famous Canadian poem ... they still exist in the US but have greatly diminished in visibility, mainly, I think since the last two administrations have been led by draft dodgers and even the modern Dems consider the US military an ignorant sub-class (witness Kerry's recent remarks). However, having served at total of 38 years, many of them side-by-side with Canadian forces I know for myself who's ignorant and who isn't.

I enjoyed your account of the conversation with the Japanese woman. I lived in Japan a number of years and thoroughly enjoyed friendships with a number of Japanese folks but your message might never strike home with her ... to a great extent Japanese history has been formally altered to literally erase any record of WW-II. Indeed while I lived there (1998 IIRC) a well-respected university professor committed suicide because of the public disgrace he received for actually teaching a class that acknowledged Japan's participation in the war. The US Parks Service which shares responsibility for the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor used to record overheard visitor comments and make periodic reports as to what people were saying. The most often heard comment from Japanese visitors, observing the displays explaining the attack has been "We did this"? North American and European culture and Japanese culture shall always remain far apart I believe.

I don't disagree with zb's sentiments, but I fear mankind won't attain that level of sophistication and understanding any time soon. Untilit comes to pass we must remeber that freedom isn't free ... and service to one's country does not have to involve carrying a gun or wearing a uniform.

Anonymous said...

What wise readers you have. I cant disagree with either of the above comments.
Poppy is big in the UK too. It appears to be obligatory for anyone on the TV to ber seen wearing one. Amazing what cultural similarities there still within the Commonwealth countries, and what a contribution those countries made in those two (european) World Wars. Only this weekend, the PM of New Zealand unveiled a new memorial in London (England not Ontario;-)

Rob said...

One quote that seems to have stuck with me is that "freedom isn't free".

My father was a paratrooper in WWII and my grandfather enlisted underage and became a sniper in WWI. Every year regardless of the weather we go down and remember the sacrafices that our armed forces made to ensure that we live in a free society.

I find it very unfortunate that Japan has decided to ignore it's role in WWII. The freedom that Japan and Germany relish today was paid for with the lives of soldiers from the Allied countries like Canada.

Anonymous said...

As a veteran and one who saw dear friends lie broken on the field in the first gulf war, I thank you for this rememberance. I am often ashamed that we can't have this simple day of rememberance for our lost friends without someone turning it into political commentary. Thank you Aviatrix for not doing that. How sad are we as a people that every comment must be about a political factor and a way to make our personal view seem more right. We only ask for one day, one minute, to forget that we hate one another and remember our fallen. The causes that they fought for may not in retrospect have been just or even honorable but they all had one thing in common. They believed that what they were doing was right for the countries for which they fought and they stood forth while others fell behind them in fear or contempt. That deserves respect no matter which side you are on and no matter what your political views.

Anonymous said...

dave Starr said...
I think since the last two administrations have been led by draft dodgers and even the modern Dems consider the US military an ignorant sub-class (witness Kerry's recent remarks). However, having served at total of 38 years, many of them side-by-side with Canadian forces I know for myself who's ignorant and who isn't.

I'm glad you think so, but generalizing in such a fashion makes you the ignorant one. Your thoughts about a wide and large group of people are based on a single comment which was spun so much that it not longer has any meaning? That's like me saying "all republicans are stupid because of George Bush".

The real kicker is that Kerry actually served in Vietnam.

For the record, Kerry was making a joke at the expense of President Bush. Most people understood that; even the people who spun the line to say Kerry was insulting the troops. (which for a Vietnam Veteran would seem highly unlikely).

On a related note, I was in Canada (Montreal) a little over a week ago and noticed the poppies. I, too, was a tad confused about their meaning. I assumed there was an upcoming memorial type holiday, I just was unsure what.

Here in the states, we just recently had Veterans Day. I don't think it was quite as big a deal on this coast as it may be in other places. However, this does not surprise me with the current state of affairs and all.

And for the record, patriotism does not mean "do what your government tells you to do", it is about upholding your true values, rights, and freedoms. Last I checked, nobody in the three branches of US Government was really interested in that. (They care a bit more about money buried beneath the dirt)

Anonymous said...

I have just recently learned that I have an old classmate in Afghanistan, and the younger brother of a dear friend is there as well. The sacrifices are still going on, and thank you Aviatrix for such a heart felt post.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure why I did not think that Canada (and Australia, New Zealand, the USA and others) celebrated Remembrance Day (I guess it must be because I am English :) ).
We spent the morning at the Remembrance Day service in our village. Our kids (boy and girl) are in Brownies (Little Girl Guides) and Beavers (very little Scouts), so they were there in uniform with their troops. Every year the names of those in the village who died in uniform are read out. Even for our little village this takes some time, and I am always struck by number of names from the same families, certainly from the First World War - one family lost 4 boys, and the father. A truly sobering thought.


Anonymous said...

[start quote]Around my part of the US, poppies are in the same general category as war bonds and victory gardens. Many people remember their significance, but they are considered archaic. They go along with the memory of the World Wars. These days, a more common expression of gratitude toward veterans and those currently serving is a yellow ribbon (though that too is beginning to lose its currency, and is being replaced by red-white-and-blue ribbon-shaped car magnets).[end quote]

Capitalism at it's mediocre.

silver horde said...

I understand that one can now get a white poppy too for rememberance of the people who died in war that were not in uniform.
I listened to the Rememberence Service at the Albert Hall London on the BBC Radio 2 Royal (British Legion Festival of Remembrance -)
Listen Again.
It was very moving. Especially the 21 year old girl who lost her husband of 3 weeks.
The music is very uplifting.
Have not seen a single poppy since moving to California.
ttfn Jane

Aviatrix said...

patriotism does not mean "do what your government tells you to do"

That is correct, it most certainly doesn't, but serving in the military is about doing exactly as you are commanded, whether you agree with it or not, because you are serving as the instrument of your nation's foreign policy. In a democracy, that policy is determined through a democratic process, so, however indirectly, obeying your commanding officer is serving the people of your country.

Those whose moral code precludes killing have the right not to join the military, and in the cases where orders conflict with morality, soldiers are supposed to make the same decisions as pilots do when orders conflict with safety.

A red white and blue ribbon does not come close to the meaning of a poppy. We don't wave flags on Remembrance Day. We fly existing flags at half mast. It's coincidence that the colour of the poppy matches a colour of our flag. Victory gardens and war bonds and red white and blue ribbons are physical and emotional support towards victory in the war. They should end with the war.

The poppy is a symbol that says we honour the contribution after the war is over. I was still wearing mine on the airplane home from California, and a flight attendant asked me what it was for. When I told her, she asked, "Are you a veteran?"

That struck me. Does it mean that she thought it more likely that a I was a soldier returned from a foreign war than that a civilian unconnected with the military would wear a symbol honourng veterans?

I have some extra poppies that were sent to me in the mail by a veterans association. Would anyone in a poppyless country like me to send them one for next year?

Aviatrix said...

You're quite right, 11:00 not 11:11, and two minutes not one minute. Kids these days! I usually go to a public event or watch the broadcast from Parliament Hill, so I let someone else tell me when it starts. Entry edited to correct that.

Anonymous said...

As a veteran of the US military, I question which is more important: A poppy in memory, or heartfelt empathy for those who lost their life providing for the safety of a nation?

I don't care how people remember the 22 friends I've lost in two different wars, as long as they remember that they served with honor and courage.

The war they fought is irrelevant. The point is that they fought the war whether they wanted to or not, because they gave their word that they would.

Anonymous said...

DailyAviator said...
Poppies on Veterans Day have been out of style in America since the 60's. I think that says a lot about what this country has become.


I was born in the 70's and I'm painfully aware of what they mean. In middle america and in the south they are still very popular and if one pays attention they can still be seen even in the larger cities.

Jim said...

Aviatrix, you expressed the thoughts I was thinking when you said (paraphrasing) that Remembrance is about remembering the sacrifices made by those in the war, independently of the particular politician, politics, or country of the participants.

Ultimately, wars are fought by our young, as agents of our countries... and often the reason we are participating in a war, peace action or police action is that the politicans have screwed up. And so young men drown in freezing waters with their lungs full of diesel fuel, or ... pick your mode.

My father spent WW2 in a trench in his backyard in England, too young for the services. My maternal grandfather served in the Canadian Army in WW1, and when he came home he rarely spoke of his service. And he never went to church again (except when obligated to, for a baptism, wedding or funeral), having been totally disillusioned by the hijacking of religion by the wartime leaders ("God marched into battle supporting both sides").

My mom flies to Phoenix this week - she snowbirds down there. I drove to Northern Ontario to pick her up and bring her to Ottawa... it gives her a chance to visit my family for a few days, and it means fewer airport changes to fly out of Ottawa rather than Sudbury. And we get a chance to talk, share and solve the problems of the world for 5 hours as we drive. As we drove past Petawawa (home base for many Canadian soldiers currently serving in Afghanastan), every roadsite signpost, fencepost and verticalpost, for what seemed like miles, had a yellow ribbon attached -- an expressions of hope that someone's father, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband or wife would return home safely. And soon.

When we drove past those yellow ribbons, it prompted me to quiz my mom on what she knew of grandad's wartime service. It wasn't much, but at least the family stories have been passed to another generation.

Final comment in a long post: I used to live in Kitchener, Ontario, which has a large German population (the city used to be named Berlin). The graves of the Germans who died in Canada while in POW camps are buried in a cemetary there. There was much public debate about how to handle the remembrance services for those German soldiers.

Someone's son or daughter never enjoyed the opportunity to grow old. Regardless of the nation they were from, it is the individual that I remember, not the country they were from, or the actions/inactions by the leaders of the day that resulted in war being waged.

OK, there is a little bit of soapbox in the above. 'trix is much better at writing than I.

Anonymous said...

I'm nearing 70 years of age and remember the poppies from my California childhood. They were made with orange crepe paper, which fascinated me. I believe it was in the 60's that wearing one seemed to become a political statemnt rather than a remembrance. Thank you for reminding us.

Anonymous said...

Quoting AT: "The war they fought is irrelevant. The point is that they fought the war whether they wanted to or not, because they gave their word that they would."

Anytime someone is brought to a situation that does not allow questioning the orders that are given, something is seriously wrong. This is the exact answer to the question why any war is irrelevant.

Letting nations behind and talking about individual human beings, I ask if my (German) grandpa would really have joined a war that was, amongst others, fought against the Dutch, if he had known my grandma back then. She was Dutch, from Rotterdam. He gave his word that he would fight. No point, though. Wars kill. They always will. I'm glad my Grandma survived the German attacks. I always thought Nation States were a bad idea. Getting to know individuals is delightful, overcomes fear and keeps you from fighting wars. No ribbons needed.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Trix. I was gratified to see that there seemed to be more people wearing poppies this year than I can ever recall having happened before. I have to wonder whether the rest of my family wore them, since they are so left-wing that some of them, at least, consider the poppy to be an endorsement of war in general, and so have chosen against wearing them in the past as a matter of principle. Shrug.

I've heard there is a movement which distributes white poppies which are meant to display one's desire for peace. I think the use of the poppy is an attempt to hijack the existing custom of the red poppy for remembrance and I disdain that, the moreso because remembering the war dead and the veterans is in no way incompatible with a desire for peace. My two cents, out.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of war and Japan (as someone did...) - this book has completely changed my view of the Pacific war, and even the history of war. For example: "... Already American napalm had killed more than 400,000 Japanese and injured nearly 500,000. It had destroyed 2.5 million homes. Thirty percent of the urban population - 9 million people - was homeless, trudging through the land with vacant stares and empty bellies." This was before the A-bombs were dropped. Napalm (jellied gasoline) actually killed more Japanese civilians than did the Atomic bombs. And not to fear that the author merely indulges in America-bashing. He equally reveals the atrocities carried out by the Japanese as well. The way the Japanese leadership and officers treated their own soldiers was absolutely brutal - to say nothing of how they treated POWs; the civilians in countries they invaded; etc...

The book exposes the entire exercise of war for what it is.

Oh yeah, the book is: "Flyboys" by James Bradley. It seems from the cover as if it's only a WWII aviation history book, but the title is misleading. Personally, I consider this book to be a 'must read'...

G. F. McDowell said...

A more enduring tradition in the US has been "Memorial Day" at the end of May. It started after the Civil War as "Decoration Day" when widows would lay flowers on the graves of the war dead from both sides. Most towns still have Memorial Day parades. The impact of the Great War was far more keenly felt on the Commonwealth than on the US, and that is reflected on the fact that most Great War memorials I have seen in Quebec and Britain have more war dead from the Great War than from the Second World War.