Why I Wear Both the Red and the White Poppy
I will be wearing both the red poppy and the white today: the red to honour Nathan Cirillo who was killed standing guard at Canada’s War Memorial, and the white to honour the compassion in the face of violence showed by Barbara Winters, Margaret Lehre and Martin Magnan, the passersby who rushed forward to help.
I will wear the red poppy to commemorate the sacrifices of Canadians who have died in war, most recently in Afghanistan. I will wear the white to honour those who brought the war home, in broken bodies and minds, many with post-traumatic stress disorder. More veterans of the war in Afghanistan have been lost to suicide than died there in combat.
My father was, I think, among the many undiagnosed cases of PTSD who raised my generation of postwar boomers. He carried bits of shrapnel in his thigh, and perhaps the equivalent in his soul.
I wear the red poppy for those who step forward when war becomes necessary, and the white to keep asking why: why war should ever be necessary. War is a violation of the human body and spirit, and of the earth, in a way that is as devastating as climate change. Besides the destruction of landscapes, there’s the toxification and terrorization of them through landmines and improvised explosive devices. Not only are people displaced from habitat and home, so too are animals, fish and birds. Air and water are left polluted, while a climate of violence spreads like smog.
The First World War has been called the first industrial war as industrial-scale factories mass produced tanks and other weapons while the telegraph and telephone enabled instant long-distance coordination. The site of battle, therefore, could be extended across entire landscapes, engulfing venerable towns and their populations. Now, the miasma of “war” seems to have permeated every landscape, turning even a troubled young man in a homeless shelter into an “enemy combatant” and a defenceless young man performing a ritual in downtown Ottawa into a casualty.
So I return to source, the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian medic John McCrae, which is the root of both the red poppy and the white poppy traditions. McCrae wrote this poem at Ypres, the day after his friend Lieut. Alex Helmer took a direct hit from an eight-inch shell and was blown to bits.
“ … We are the dead …
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch …”
When the poem was published in Punch magazine, in the aftermath of the Germans having sunk the British ship Lusitania, it was framed with a view to rallying morale and the fighting spirit. McCrae died before the war ended and so was unable to remind people of what he’d apparently told the brigade chaplain after completing the poem: that by “foe,” he didn’t mean German or Austrian soldiers, but war itself.
Still, this sentiment (the First World War was often framed as “the war to end all war”) was prevalent enough in the postwar period that when the red-poppy commemoration was being launched, the Women’s Cooperative Guild lobbied the British army chief of staff to insert “no more war” in the middle of the red-poppy badge. When this request was ignored, the women’s guild launched the white poppy as a second symbol of remembrance, and thousands if not millions of people have worn it since.
As a Canadian I wear the white poppy to honour our founding values of peace, order and good governance. I wear it because my Canada is a white-poppy country as well as a red one, and I want to remind our leaders of this. We are a country that has traditionally offered humanitarian aid first and foremost, a country that has welcomed refugees and treated them well. We have been at the forefront of UN peacekeeping operations, though our commitment has fallen from numbers of 4,000 at a time to, currently, less than 100. We have also led moves to step by step outlaw and criminalize war, for instance in framing and seeking UN adoption of a land-mines treaty in the 1990s; though today, Canada is the only NATO country that has not signed the Arms Trade Treaty.
I wear the white poppy as well as the red to renew my sense of priorities: compassion over violence and the fear of violence; reconciliation over retribution. And I wear it to remember: “….If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep …”
Heather Menzies is a long-time peace activist with the Voice of Women and the author of 10 books, including Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good.