Growing up in Canada, we called it Remembrance Day. It was the day you bought pin-on poppies from brittle old men, and wore them to recite In Flanders Fields, which all school children memorized for the occasion. It’s a Canadian thing. We got the day off school, of course, but it was a guilty pleasure. Some of our friends spent the day in cemeteries or at war memorials honoring those lost in “The Big Wars.”
It honored the peace brought on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and, at least initially, it honored the losses and hopes specific to the Great War. That was before the wars had sequels and we started to number them. I say hopes, because with the conclusion of the Great War, the hope was that this treaty would create a truly great and lasting peace. What were they thinking?
This day was once remembered in the United States as Armistice Day. That, being too war-specific, was later changed to Veteran’s Day. No poppies, though. In America we’ve bifurcated the war-remembering business into two main days, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day—separating the flag-waving into a day for the living and a day for the dead. The dead are low-maintenance. Their day is always a Monday, for the convenience of the three-day-weekend. I wish it had retained its solemnity, but all too often it’s just considered the kick-off weekend for the summer season. (Much as the venerable Labor Day has become the summer finale.) Little offends me more than retail sales associated with these important days of reflection. That’s faux patriotism; go ahead, wrap your dollars in the Stars and Stripes, but you cannot hide poor tastes and judgment. My deepest apologies to the war-dead. In reality, this is a culture that turns the page all too quickly. Only the immediate families hang on to the sacrifices and losses of those who gave to their country in full measure.
Veteran’s Day is a tougher question, these days. That’s because it’s difficult to muster the appropriate level of honor to those we currently shortchange in terms of medical care and benefits. Veterans are not low maintenance. Our politicians, though, want to have their cake and keep it, too. They speak in glowing and patriotic terms of sacrifice, lay wreathes on graves, even as they fail to fund their empty promises for veteran’s benefits. Tell the veterans of our current, under-the-rug wars, that we honor them.
I think we should honor the soldiers, living and dead, for their service. Honor the sacrifice, not the war. “War,” we’ve learned, is declared by old men with layered intentions. Economic, political, profiteering or just plain immature—most wars could and should have been avoided. We can’t afford them, financially, environmentally, economically and morally. We’ve had more than our fair share of stupid wars. We shouldn’t be honoring them. But nothing in the stupidity of leaders subtracts from the legitimate sacrifices of soldiers. While we’re at it, I include in those deserving of honor, those who didn’t serve on moral grounds–thinking men whose thoughtful pact with the living didn’t include killing. They pay, too, either in prison terms, public service, or exile.
Usually on days of reflection I fly the flag. Yes, me, the liberal, I fly our flag. I’m tired of the extreme right commandeering Old Glory for their sole use. It’s everyone’s flag, to fly (sometimes to fly upside down in extreme protest of this country’s direction or even to burn, if necessary.) I call it taking back the flag. On Earth Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Labor Day and Veteran’s Day, I fly our flag. It came as a shock to Elmer, my old landlord. We didn’t share politics, but when he saw my flag and queried me about it, he put up his own (much bigger) flag. The guy is a veteran, but until our conversation, he hadn’t given the concept of patriotism much thought. I fly our flag as a reminder of our responsibilities and to spur our duty to make the future better.
This day, no flag. I gave my flag away to a neighbor girl when I left Two Rock. She asked me why I fly the flag and I told her. I hoped that, like the words of Flanders Fields which meant little to me as a kid, those good reasons for flying the flag would resonate for her as she grew older and was better able to reflect on their meaning. Next year, I’ll get myself a new flag. Maybe even bigger than my old one!
I now recognize that Imperialism rings, even in the innocent enough words of Flanders Fields, and it’s why I urge all to take these as days of reflection, with honor. Question, always question!
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.