There has been a lot of talk this year about acts of remembrance. The White Poppy, which is an alternative symbol of memorialising victims of war, has been in the spotlight in what has been a contentious debate about the role of remembrance day in Canada and, more broadly, the purpose of historical memory. As an historian I know that one of the most significant roles of history is how it is remembered publicly. Academic history is absolutely fascinating but is a realm not generally accessible to the masses. In most cases, constructs of history are played out more frequently in film or in commercials than they are in journal articles or seminars.
From my vantage point, I feel that a lot of the conjecture about poppies comes from the fact that Canada's history is both a very clear narrative and a sparse amalgam of divergent stories. Most people are aware that Remembrance Day is an important holiday in the trajectory of Canada as a nation. However, for most I believe the shared sentiment stops there. Everyone's personal perspective on the act of remembrance changes thereafter, to whether they think about the families of soldiers recently deployed in Afghanistan, or about the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder, or about the military as promoting violence and war. Individuals are entitled to think about what interests them personally and what affects them emotionally about these questions. I believe the point of remembrance day is, quite explicitly, to remember the cost of warfare, which is left wide open to interpretation.
I feel that the right has a tendency to voice support for the military in a doctrinal way such as placing the soldier as an idealised figure in a glorious service role. Likewise, I feel that the far left is often all too keen to disparage most elements as though everything about the military actively promotes ideals like hierarchy and obedience in the name of "freedom" or "democracy". To me, the wide rift is mostly a result of thinking about the military as something we are either for or against. These positions lack precision and are gross oversimplifications of the role of violence and order in a global historical context. It's helpful to separate the military into several interrelated pieces: the soldier, organised violence, military institutions, and conflict itself.
I can't speak to the multitude of perspectives on these complex issues, but I can flesh out how I feel. I'm inclined to support soldiers, not simply because they have given of themselves, but because there seems to be a tacit respect for them but no real support in the long term once they leave active duty. I think of numerous family members who served during the Second World War only to come back to a society that did not understand them. I think of infantry coming back from Afghanistan who experience night terrors. I think of the families profoundly affected by this. While I support the people who serve, I don't buy into the rhetoric that we need to "support our troops" because that for me is wrapped up in supporting specific conflicts and/or the military as an institution. I'm under no auspices that the military should be abolished or that we can live in a world without conflict, but the military needs to be an institution worthy of criticism and transparency. I think that, as I mentioned before, Remembrance Day should be about taking the time to reflect privately and publicly about these issues. It makes me think about the types of questions I want to ask. What I want to talk about. What I want to hear others engage with.
What is or is not admirable about the roles of those who are in the military?
What is the cost of peace?
What is the role of states to intervene in the affairs of others?
How can military institutions be held more accountable?
How can we promote peace while going to war?
How do we honour those who serve without valourising war?
Lastly, what of the poppies? Ultimately, remembrance is a very personal and invididual choice. I believe that those who choose to remember differently or who choose not to remember are participating in valid ways. Likewise, I believe that policing the types of poppies people wear is problematic and polarising. Let's not allow Remembrance Day to be a holiday away from critical thought, one where we feel obliged to follow tradition. Let's be conscientious and try to approach issues around peace and sacrifice with open hearts and minds.