In Flanders Fields

"poppies" on Flickr taken by Olga and licensed under Creative Commons

What are we doing when we buy and wear a poppy?

In the immediate sense, we’re donating funds to veterans’ causes. But it’s about more than that. It’s a silent gesture of solidarity. The poppy does not have to be political, you don’t need to be any particular sort of person to wear one.

You can believe that there is no such thing as a just war and proudly wear a poppy because you think that veterans deserve support, deserve to be honored. You can believe that every war your country has ever engaged in has been righteous, and wear a poppy because you think that veterans deserve to be honored by the citizens of their nations. You can believe that these issues are complex and not that simple, and wear a poppy, because you feel that veterans are real people who experienced real things, and that you should honor that.

Today is Veterans Day, which¬† means that all sorts of people are wearing poppies. Poppies, of course, are worn because they were popularized in “In Flanders Fields,” which is probably one of the most famous war poems of all time. A poem which came out of the trenches of World War One, a radically different war from the ones we fight today, still resonates and has meaning because while war is different, the experience of war continues to be the same.

For whatever reason that people joined the military or a war, whether or not the wars they were involved in were just, no matter who won, their experiences happened, and I think it’s important to recognize and honor that. To do otherwise is to deny the experiences of fellow human beings. To lump veterans together into one category is a grave mistake, but to ignore them is also deplorable. You can set aside your own thoughts about war and military service to wear a poppy.

Because, you know, it does make a difference. I am not a veteran, but I do know what it’s like to see a symbol that someone stands with me. I don’t need to know that person, I don’t need to know anything about them, I don’t need to understand that person, or even to know why they stand with me. For whatever reason, they do, and I value that.

I value symbolism. Symbolism does not replace meaning, but it can be critical. Poppies are a shorthand for a larger idea. They are a potent symbol which is easy to read, which makes them the best sort of symbol.

Sometimes we need to set aside our thoughts and all of the other things that are going on to express solidarity; sometimes joining with someone is more important than working out the details or creating caveats and exclusions. Today is Veterans Day, and that makes it a day to honor veterans, however we feel about the larger issues surrounding war, the military, military service, the world, ourselves.

I join others in honoring veterans today (and every day) because their experiences matter, and because they have been a part of something larger. Something important. And that’s worth wearing a poppy for.

2 Comments on In Flanders Fields

  1. As a European, I see wearing a poppy as a symbol as a slightly problematic thing to do. If I wore a poppy, I’d feel I’d be ‘taking sides’. Wearing a poppy is, apparently, a well established tradition in the Anglo-influenced world, for lack of a better term. From your post, I gather Americans do it. I know it is done in the UK. Yet, I have never encountered it in Germany. Not. Ever. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, I’ve just never seen it. I’ve never spoken about it, or seen it on t.v. I don’t even know the German word for poppy. Nor the Dutch, actually.
    And were are the Belgians in all this? Didn’t those poppies grow in Flanders Fields? Why aren’t the Belgian refugees commemorated? Why wasn’t I taught any Flemish (i.e. Dutch-language) war poems? Or German ones, for that matter? Why was I taught about the Battle of the Somme, but not the battle of Tarnopol or Aisne?
    So I couldn’t possibly wear a poppy. It is to Anglo-centric for me. I mourn every French, British, Irish and American life lost. But also every German, Austrian, Hungarian, Belgian and Russian life, as well as every life I don’t know of. Funny how symbolism speaks differently to everyone.

  2. I wear my poppy every year, because, to me, it’s a reminder of what WWI came to mean — it was supposed to be the war to end wars. I sincerely grieve, every year, that it didn’t end war, and I grieve for all the people lost, and still to be lost to war, and that’s why I wear it.

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