Monday, November 11, 2013

Wearing of the Poppy

Hello everyone,

I hope this blustery, rainy day finds you well.  I hope this Remembrance Day finds you well.

Today I had errands at City Hall, and so stopped by Victoria Park (London, Ontario) to hear at least some of the Remembrance Day service.  The entire intersection and four corners were filled with people.

I'm of two minds about Remembrance Day.  I'm in agreement with a day of remembrance for people who have died in or fought in wars and that there is a need to remember their efforts.  My late father was a member of the British Army for 14 years, stationed in Egypt, Malta and Palestine/Isreal.  More particularly, I think we more often need to remember that violence is a resourcelessness (as Ursula Franklin has said). I don't mind if you think me hopelessly naive in my political/power analysis when I ask, about any conflict: why can't they just figure out how to get along, or share?

As I observed the crowd at London's cenotaph, I had the cynical thought in my head that over the last ten years there's been a lot of positive spin put to Canada's military.  They've done well in the publicity department.  It's all praise and no one's criticizing.  Steve (Canada's prime minster Harper) will be pleased.

I've felt uneasy about all the hype about brave military families left at home, service, sacrifice ... servility.  

And then, a couple of days ago, I heard former Prime Minister Joe Clark commenting on Canada's military having gone from a respected peacekeeping role to a combatant role.

And today, I ran across a piece on the Guardian Newspaper's on-line website.  Written by a 91 year old poverty activist and Royal Air Force veteran, Harry Leslie Smith's piece dovetails with my own concerns.  

I leave you with my best regards, and the words of Mr. Smith.


Why's Woman

This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time
The Guardian Newspaper on-line edition -,

I will remember friends and comrades in private next year, as the solemnity of remembrance has been twisted into a justification for conflict

Over the last 10 years the sepia tone of November has become blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders. The most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts. The American civil war's General Sherman once said that "war is hell", but unfortunately today's politicians in Britain use past wars to bolster our flagging belief in national austerity or to compel us to surrender our rights as citizens, in the name of the public good.

Still, this year I shall wear the poppy as I have done for many years. I wear it because I am from that last generation who remember a war that encompassed the entire world. I wear the poppy because I can recall when Britain was actually threatened with a real invasion and how its citizens stood at the ready to defend her shores. But most importantly, I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe.

However, I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy.

Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the first world war with quotes from Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector. We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.

I can tell you it didn't happen that way because I was born nine years after the first world war began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today. We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain's population in 1913.

This is why I find that the government's intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn't know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.

My uncle and many of my relatives died in that war and they weren't officers or NCOs; they were simple Tommies. They were like the hundreds of thousands of other boys who were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn't care to represent their citizens if they were working poor and under-educated. My family members took the king's shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.

For many of you 1914 probably seems like a long time ago but I'll be 91 next year, so it feels recent. Today, we have allowed monolithic corporate institutions to set our national agenda. We have allowed vitriol to replace earnest debate and we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom. But by far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.

Next year, I won't wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn't be left to die on the battleground of modern life.

Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a second world war RAF veteran and at 90 an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has authored numerous books about Britain during the Great Depression, the second world war and postwar austerity
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