The Case of the White Poppy

An imagined conversation about peace and violence.

The Cast:

Frances is a community activist.
Mark, cousin of Frances, is a member of the reserves.
Linda is a family friend and graduate student in history.

By Trudy Govier

Mark: What’s that you’re wearing?

Frances: It’s a white poppy.

Mark: It’s November and it’s with the red poppies that we honour veterans and remember their victories. What are you doing with a white poppy?

Linda: Real poppies can be many colours, Mark.

Mark: That’s not the point. For nearly a hundred years the red poppy has symbolized our respect for the soldiers, their heroism and courage, and the families of those who lost their lives fighting to protect our freedom. The red in the poppy stands for blood that was shed. World War I, then World War II of course and there were others—Korea, Vietnam, Afghan­istan.

Linda: World War I was a capitalist war, a competition among great powers. It wasn’t about human rights or social justice.

Frances: The white poppy is a symbol of peace and commemorates the losses of war – not just soldiers on our side – but all those killed or wounded in war. It marks the importance of peace and a ‘never again’ resolution about war. Nowadays, military people celebrate World War I by marking victorious battles, but at the end of that war, that wasn’t the feeling. It was supposed to be the war to end wars. Well, that didn’t work out.

Mark: I don’t like people playing around with the red poppy symbol.

Frances: The white poppy for peace goes back to the 1920s and 30s when it was a symbol of peace and remembrance for all casualties of wars – not just soldiers. Actually, Mark, it’s not only white poppies that people wear today. The poppy symbol is powerful and that’s why people use it. There are purple poppies marking the sacrifice of animals in war, black poppies marking the participation of men and women of African and Caribbean origin, beaded poppies for indigenous participants, and khadi poppies for Indian and other Commonwealth participants in wars.

Linda: On the right side, of course. I think Theresa May once wore a khadi poppy.

Mark: Oh, great! It’s disgusting, this exploitation of our symbol. The poppy belongs to the military, it’s ours, and it should be red.

Linda: Frances it’s the white poppy that’s so important to you. What’s so special about the white poppy?

Frances: It’s the only poppy that marks resistance to war. The others mark the war contributions from unacknowledged groups and continue to celebrate war, expressing needs for recognition. The white poppy doesn’t celebrate war or militarism in any shape or form. It’s for peace and urges the memory of all who lost their lives, not just soldiers.

Mark: That’s really offensive. Frances, you’d better watch out where you wear that thing – it’s nearly Remembrance Day.

Frances: It shouldn’t be offensive at all. Remembrance Day was originally called Armistice Day. People were celebrating the end of the first world war; they were smart enough not to be celebrating war itself. It’s not soldiers who valorize wars; it’s people after the fact—the higher ups and pundits including even some military historians, and the Legion. Look what they’ve done with Vimy Ridge, pure propaganda.

Mark: Vimy Ridge? You’re questioning Vimy Ridge?

Linda: Vimy Ridge, April 1917, World War I. Canadians took this ridge after both the British and the French had failed at the task. About 100,000 Canadian soldiers were involved and of them nearly 4,000 were killed and more than 6,000 wounded. The historian Jack Granat­stein wrote about this in Maclean’s magazine.

Mark: It’s well known that Vimy Ridge was a costly victory in human terms. But it is a victory we should always remember and treasure. It was the birth of Canada as a nation, when troops from all across the country fought courageously and steadfastly together and achieved a great victory. Vimy Ridge marked the birth of our nation: the world for the first time noticed Canada.

Frances: Oh, we realized we were something and became a nation because other people noticed us? That sounds pretty colonial to me.

Mark: Vimy Ridge is something to be proud of and it shaped our nation. We should remember the war and the men who fought for us and won those victories.

Linda: There were women too.

Frances: Mark, use your logic. What does ‘birth of a nation’ even mean, for heaven’s sake?

Mark: It means that Canadians started to think of themselves as Canadians, people of a new nation and not just colonials subject to the decisions of the British. High school teachers organize visits to France and the Vimy Memorial and get their students to research World War I vets and so on. The CBC has been covering these things and they have a great emotional impact, more than a hundred years later.

Frances: Well if they do it’s because the same propaganda gets repeated again and again, with the narratives more exaggerated as it continues. Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t remember the war and the losses of lives within it. But we shouldn’t be fed propaganda about glorious heroes and their courage and how their sacrifices caused the birth of a nation.

Mark: Propaganda! Why would you say that?

Frances: The standard coverage is so one-sided and not just for Vimy Ridge, for the whole first world war. It talks only of benefits and not of the great costs. Actually, if you want to glorify war, World War I is a poor case to use. The cost in casualties was enormous, something that would never be tolerated today.

Linda: There were 40 million casualties in that war, including military and civilians, injured and dead. Nearly 10 million people died. In 1917 the cumulation of all those casualties led to a need for conscription in Canada, and conscription was strongly opposed in Quebec. There were riots about it in Montreal.

Frances: Forty million. It’s hard even to imagine.

Linda: Francophones in Canada did not generally support the war effort and were strongly opposed to conscription, which led to a crisis in 1917. That’s why some historians say that Vimy Ridge was not the birth of a nation, but rather the birth of two nations.

Mark: The victory at Vimy Ridge was an amazing achievement by Canadians fighting together as a Canadian army, not a colonial one, and we still need to remember and honour those heroes. We owe them the free world and our free culture.

Linda: That’s got to be an over-statement. What about World War II? Assuming that we have a free world and a free culture, wouldn’t we owe them to the victories of allied forces in the second World War?

Frances: I should think so! Look Mark, from World War I there are other lasting effects, some good, some bad, some debatable.

Linda: I think you’re right about the conscription crisis and English-French relations in Canada.

Mark: All right, all right. So there were costs as well as benefits. It was an enormous event, so what can you expect? But getting back to the white poppy, Frances, I hope you won’t be wearing it on Remembrance Day. That’s a day to remember the courageous soldiers who sacrificed their young lives to give us the society we enjoy today.

Frances: Oh, really!

Mark: Yes really. We should honour them, we should solemnly mark that day, and people like you shouldn’t offend the patriotism of military people by wearing a white poppy and crying out for peace.

Frances: It would be better to cry out for war?

Linda: What would be wrong with wearing a white poppy and a red poppy? You would be standing up for peace, remembering victims of war, and also honouring soldiers who were casualties of war – those who died and those who were wounded.

Mark: Two poppies? It would be a compromise, but I don’t like it.

Frances: I don’t like it either. You said it yourself, Mark, the red in the red poppy represents blood that was shed. I’m not in favour of blood being shed and I don’t want to celebrate it. War brings horror, devastation, suffering, and loss. We shouldn’t exalt it or encourage it. I don’t think violence gives a good resolution to conflicts – national or international, political or personal.

Linda: So you two agree.

Frances: Just on this one thing. There are too many myths, not just about Vimy, but about war and militarism in general. ‘People joined for love of country’: no, not all, some joined for travel and adventure, or because they didn’t have a job. ‘People were courageous’: no, not all, many were scared silly and would have backed out if they could have gotten away with it. ‘They were heroes, all of them’ – no, that’s a simplification – different people did different things for different reasons in different circumstances. I’m not wearing a symbol supportive of all those myths.

Mark: Military history is the core of our history, and the red poppy is a symbol of that. The white poppy is an insult to our soldiers and our vets and I’ll never wear one. We should honour the brave men and women who died for our country.

Frances: It was Agnes MacPhail, I think, who said that patriotism is not dying for one’s country. It’s living for one’s country.

Mark: Who was Agnes MacPhail?

Frances: She was a Canadian politician, a progressive who was the first woman MP in Canada, elected in 1921, I think it was. For most of her career she was a pacifist and critic of militarism.

Mark: Oh, it’s coming back to me. Wasn’t she the one who even attacked the cadet training program?

Frances: Right. She hated war and militarism. But she did vote to support participation in the second World War.

Linda: Interesting. Bertrand Russell opposed the first World War and conscription in particular, and spent time in jail for it. But he too supported military opposition to Hitler and wasn’t a pacifist in World War II.

Mark: So…Agnes MacPhail and Bertrand Russell changed their minds, to oppose fascism and aggression with armies and navies, air power and munitions. Well now, how about that? (sarcastically) Typical. People are pacifists until they come up against a problem where military force is needed. Then, suddenly and conveniently, they change their views. To have a military when you require it, you have to support and sustain that military even when you don’t think you require it.

Frances: A qualified pacifist can acknowledge that there are some just wars. But they are few and far between – far fewer than people assume.

Mark: My point remains. The military can’t just pop into existence when you need it. It needs ongoing support.

Linda: Look, we’re not going to resolve the issue of war and pacifism this afternoon. Let’s go back to where we started – the white poppy and Remembrance Day.

Frances: I’m not opposed to marking Remembrance Day, and I’m not opposed to reflecting sorrowfully on soldiers and civilians who lost their lives and the losses of their families and all who loved them. I just want to put those reflections in a different context.

Linda: You’re not opposed to Remembrance Day, then?

Frances: No. Look, I’m as patriotic as either of you. But worries me is all the enthusiastic talk of heroes and the birth of the nation and courage—the glorification of war with no attention to the negatives, the terrible suffering, the appalling environmental costs, and the careless loss of human life. So I ask: how could we mark Remembrance Day without glorifying war and militarism?

Mark: They’re not putting you in charge, Frances.

Frances: No. But it’s a problem worth thinking about. How could we honour individuals who suffered and died without celebrating the wars they fought in? Or war itself, for that matter? That’s even more fundamental.

Linda: There are parks and statues and museums and memorial gardens, of course, to commemorate people who died. And we have many of those already.

Mark: It’s not enough.

Frances: Why not? What do we need the parades and bands and uniforms and speeches about heroes for anyway?

Mark: Well, to appreciate our military, to show them off, for them to have a physical presence.

Frances: And that’s not glorifying war?

Mark: It’s not. It’s honouring and celebrating the military, which is a different thing entirely. We can’t do without a military, and Remembrance Day is one day to appreciate it and mark our appreciation.

Linda: But without glorifying war?

Mark: Right.

Frances: If we really acknowledge the fear, the suffering, the losses and the devastation, war would not look attractive and neither would a military career.

Mark: There really are patriots who risk and lose their lives for their country; there are heroes who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom, and victories achieved by our forces; and there are victories that have been fundamental in protecting our way of life. To leave these things out of Remembrance Day would amount to distorting and harmful censorship.

Frances: I disagree. It would amount to truth. Cut out the glory propaganda.

Linda: And the white poppy is part of doing that?

Frances: Yes. Mark, honestly, if you’d ever served in a war and experienced the horror and the losses, I think you’d change your mind.

Mark: I’m off to the Canadian mission in Latvia tomorrow. There will be about 500 of us Canadians there, in a mission for deterrence and reassurance, set up after the Russian take-over of Crimea.

Linda: I hope it will go all right. They’ve had some personnel problems, I think.

Frances: Hope for peace. And wear a white poppy.

Trudy Govier is a philosopher, writer, and peace activist living in Calgary.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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