Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's Remembrance Day: Fuck you to Hell John McCrae

It's Veteran's Day in the States, an official national holiday, but ignored by most employers. It honors everyone who served in the armed forces, from potato peelers to four star generals, whether they served in war, or not. It's not to be confused with Memorial Day (last weekend in May) which honors the fallen.

But I'm visiting my mother in Vancouver. Up here, November 11 is Remembrance Day. It's a real holiday. People are taking the day off and are out in restaurants and in the parks with Poppies on their lapels, honoring their war dead. It's their Memorial Day. Above all it's the anniversary of "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" that signaled the cessation of hostilities in World War I.

Canada was struck particularly hard in what they call The Great War. Great in what way? we ask. "The War to End All Wars," they said. "There is no such war!" we fear from bitter experience.

Canada, as a dominion of Great Britain in 1914, was automatically at war when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Nevertheless, the manner of Canada's response was left to the Canadian government. Canadians responded with gusto. Unemployed workers flocked to enlist in response to war hysteria in 1914-1915.

From the Canadian encyclopedia: 
By the end of 1914 the target for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was 50,000; by summer 1915 it was 150,000. During a visit to England that summer, Prime Minister Borden was shocked with the magnitude of the struggle. To demonstrate Canadian commitment to the war effort, Borden used his 1916 New Year's message to pledge 500,000 soldiers from a Canadian population of barely 8-million. By then volunteering had virtually run dry.... The total, 330,000, was impressive but insufficient.
Residents of Quebec largely refused to participate. In response, Borden instituted a national registration system in 1916, and on May 18, 1917 he announced a program of conscription.

Ultimately, from a total population of less than 8 million, 619,636 were enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of these 424,000 were shipped to Europe, 52,000 were killed in action, and 172,000 were wounded. Thirty-six percent of Canadians who served were killed or wounded in action, nearly three percent of the population.

Canadiens patriotically wear poppies and say "Lest we forget" to honor the dead. But why poppies?

John McCrae (1872-1918) is the reason Canadians wear these poppies. He was a physician, professor of medicine, and army officer in the Canadian armed forces. When war broke out in 1914 he was appointed brigade surgeon. He died of pneumonia late in the war. His poem "In Flanders Fields" was published anonymously in Punch on December 18, 1915. 
In Flanders Fields 
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
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.
The poem became a sensation. McCrae said he "was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay." And to this day we wear poppies in his honor... and for his poem.

McCrae was no pacifist. When pulled away from a beloved artillery assignment, he reportedly said: "all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men."

Well, Fuck you to hell, John McCrae. I curse your lines:  "The larks still bravely singing, fly... take up our quarrel... the torch be yours to hold it high." If you should stop to fight, stop to kill and maime and gas,  implies McCrae "we (the dead) shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields."

So I wear that poppy in grief to honor the sacrifice of 52,000 Canadiens. But it's November and it's usually raining. And when I remember that soldiers heeded John McCrae, and maimed and killed, and gassed, and carried the torch he urged them to carry for three more years; and when I remember that soon thereafter, others took up that torch in World War 2, the Chinese revolution, Korea, and Vietnam... I thoughtfully remove that poppy and toss it in the mud.... and I stomp on it to exorcise John McCrae and his ilk.

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

1 comment:

  1. Amazing that mankind so easily whips itself into war frenzy after all the death and suffering it causes, isn't it? Must be something about our species...