First, a few caveats. I have the utmost respect for soldiers, past and present. My father was a soldier in a conscription army. My mother was married to a polish air-force pilot (before she married my father). My grandfather was a submariner who was killed just a few weeks before the Armistice.
Also, I am a pacifist, and I used to believe that being harmed is always a better alternative than doing harm. I still believe that, but, I now also believe there are some circumstances where the use of (or at least the threat of) military force may be necessary to prevent greater harm. I would have enlisted my energies and resources to help with the war effort to combat Nazism, for example. I may not have wielded a lethal weapon, but I wouldn’t have hesitated to work with Alan Turing to break the Enigma code, possibly the single most important allied action of WW II.
What I want to say here is not about soldiers, but about how we remember them. There is something disquieting about the way that many – politicians especially – use remembrance day to justify war and drum up nationalistic patriotism.
Take for instance the word “sacrifice”, often used in the context of Remembrance Day: “we honour the sacrifices made by our veterans” or “we thank our veterans because, if not for their sacrifice, we would not enjoy our freedoms today.”
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “sacrifice” is:
an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy
Hence a soldier who has “sacrificed” his life in war, has given up his life for something of greater value. That greater value being “our freedom” or “our country”. “Peace”, even, is sometimes alluded to as that virtue for which their sacrifice was made.
Leaving WW II aside for the moment, there are certainly reasons to doubt whether the 37 million casualties of WW I were “sacrifices” by that definition. Were there freedoms that would have been lost if not for that war? And was it not the crushing costs of reparations to Germany that sewed the seeds for WW II?
So, one reason I wear a White Poppy is that the Red Poppy has become a symbol for the sacrifices of soldiers. It is not clear to me that there was a greater good for which they sacrificed their lives. Yes, they died and suffered and we need to remember those tragedies. But that need not be accompanied by dubious gratitude for their sacrifices. Soldiers, like the other victims of war, were first and foremost victims and, especially in WW I, victims of the propaganda that drove them to enlist.
But there’s a more important reason. The White Poppy is a symbol of remembrance for all the suffering that occurs in war. There were many atrocities and much suffering in both world wars and the victims were not only soldiers, but also civilians. In fact, most (58%) of the allied casualties of WW II were civilian, not least of which, of course, were the victims of the Holocaust.
The Ode of Remembrance ,”Lest we forget” was originally a tribute to all the casualties of war. Yet the popular media now describes this as an event:
in memory of the thousands of men and women who sacrificed their lives in military service (CBC 2008)
There is a place to remember soldiers who did sacrifice their lives, in those situations where it was a sacrifice, and the heros whose courage and integrity are models. But, for Remembrance Day, I think it is more appropriate to remember all the suffering caused by war and reflect on the importance of seeking peace everywhere there is conflict.