The poppy and the dove

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, November 2011

Let us find ways to honour the dead without condoning and exalting war.

I always get a bit uneasy as the country gears up for another Remembrance Day. Barely into November, lapels start sprouting poppies, bugles and speeches get polished up, and stiffly crafted, selfsame wreaths begin finding their way to the town-centre monuments. Then, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the country files into place and goes still as we remember our fallen soldiers.

This is all good and proper, but often a whiff of wartime nostalgia also furls through the typical Remembrance Day ceremony. Unavoidable perhaps, given the military nature and choreography of the event, but it confuses the clarity of the ceremony’s purpose: Are we gathered to honour the dead and lament their loss or are we unwittingly paying homage to the military paradigm as well?

Ceremonies, especially those that command the kind of solemnity usually reserved for religious events, tend to keep us mute and passive. Privately we might meditate on the madness of the rising death toll from one November to the next, but we would never bring it up at the cenotaph. To do so would be irreverent, unthinkable in the face of the elderly veterans and the wreath-laying parents of lost sons and daughters. And so as a nation we bow our heads in silence and hope there’s prudence in leaving the business of war to the military and government.

Ah, yes, the business of war. The 19th-century Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz called war, “the continuation of politics by other means,” a particularly chilling definition for our time and circumstances. The world has shrunk and the entangled issues surrounding the wars and conflicts of the last decade, of the last 40 years, have all been steeped in the murky waters of political and monetary gain. Our role as a nation has changed too, from that of peacekeeper—a mandate sanctioned by most Canadians—to the more obfuscated post of aggressor in remote parts of the world where our vision has no relevance and the notion of peace itself is at an impasse.

How easily are we made to do a leader’s bidding? At the Nuremberg Trials held in Germany after World War II, Hermann Göring, one of the most ruthless oppressors in the Nazi regime, gave this perspective to psychologist Gustave Gilbert during a break in his trial: “Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

When Gilbert made the point that such lemming-like behaviour would not readily happen in a democracy, Göring dismissed it, saying, “…voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

There’s no question that the same insidious psychology has been working its way through us in the 21st century. In stopping short of filling its citizens with bogus fears, Canada seems to have exercised at least some restraint in the “war on terror” rhetoric. But still we’ve been drawn into that particular fray, and our politicians have not been above spinning our doubts and scrutiny into spectacular red herrings that veer the issues away from their core. It’s a clever way to keep us restrained.

There are many ways to honour the dead without condoning and exalting war. A Remembrance Day ceremony is just one of them. Planting trees is another: Here in town, Victoria High School is replanting a boulevard of trees that was originally established in 1917 to mark the loss of three teachers and 83 students in the First World War.

But the greatest honour is a vow to champion peace. It’s the real reason our dead soldiers gave their lives and our living soldiers continue to risk theirs. Now, as then, peace is our only viable future.

As usual Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic will wear a poppy to honour the dead, but this year she’ll festoon it with a small felt dove in support of peace.