Tommy Conway: From a soldier, four small requests before Remembrance Day
Chill out about poppies. Stop the uniform selfies. Skip the speeches. Be decent to people. That's about it.
By: Tommy Conway
Note: Though the author’s true identity is known to us, Tommy Conway is a penname. They deployed to Afghanistan as a trainer for the Afghan National Army and remain a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, which restricts what they can publish. We at The Line feel that this perspective is worth sharing, however, and are therefore withholding their name.
It’s time we had a talk about Remembrance Day. Between the Canadian Armed Forces’ ongoing leadership implosion, the fall of Kabul, and the certainty of politicians, pundits and hockey commentators sucking up the remaining oxygen in the memorial room, I worry that the few shreds of decorum left to what should be a dignified day are being stretched increasingly thin. I have some things to ask of you, fellow Canadians. Me and many others in the Queen’s livery don’t want a thanks for our service, nor do we want anything special. We just want to celebrate Remembrance Day decently. Please help us do it. Here are a few simple requests.
Don’t be sanctimonious about poppies
Not everyone wears a poppy. I get why this upsets some people. There are over 100,000 Canadians who died overseas and at home protecting the country, many of whom are friends and relatives of the living. The poppy also represents those who did their service, made it home, and had the good fortune to die in bed. These include my friends and relatives. If someone declines to wear a poppy, it might seem that they’re not thinking of them.
Frankly, they probably aren’t. And that’s OK. Since 1945, Canada has been spared any true bloodlettings, so we’ve had the immense privilege of not thinking about war very deeply. This amnesia comes partially from the good fortune of averting an accidental nuclear war, and partly because we kept, at enormous human cost, the totalitarians of the 20th century at bay. Maybe the bare-lapelled person just didn’t think of it this year. Maybe they just lost that sketchily-pinned piece of plastic — who hasn’t? In any event, someone’s lack of a poppy is no affront to my remembrance of grandfathers and uncles who took up arms against the Germans, Japanese, and those who did their bit to stare down the Soviets. Nor does it harm my friends who have served in the dirty, dangerous parts of the world since the wall fell.
Ironically, the Legion itself has made the poppy far less meaningful. The Legion has failed completely to connect with younger veterans, and is now mostly composed of civilians, some of whom award themselves fake Legion medals, designed to look like service medals. This same organization has sued other veterans’ organizations — including those which are actually composed of veterans — for the use of poppy imagery. The organization claims that this is to ensure the sanctity of the symbol, but will also sell you poppy earrings, poppy mittens, poppy synthetic golf shirts, silk poppy scarves and poppy umbrellas. It’s become a brand first and a symbol second, so don’t get upset at its absence from someone’s jacket.
While we’re here: white poppy people, if you want to wear your naïveté on your sleeve, that’s fine, just stop asking everyone to take you seriously. You can spend Nov. 11 reading or chatting about the renowned pacifist successes of convincing Hitler to stop after the Sudetenland, the successful 1928 treaty that banned war, the recently successful negations with the Taliban, and the importance of being a nice guy.
Service members and veterans: Don’t post pictures of yourself in uniform.
Remembrance Day is to remember the dead. Please stop posting pictures of yourself in uniform so you can amass likes on Facebook or wherever. We live in a me-obsessed culture, so I get why you’re tempted to do this, but it’s a distasteful trend. Just stop it.
Keep ceremonies short
Canadian troops are generally regarded as a practical, irreverent bunch. They absolutely hate that “hoo-ah” stuff you hear south of the border, and resent any attempt to import it. I’ve never met a more snide bunch and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When it comes to Remembrance Day, the most meaningful ceremonies for them involve a few close friends, or a small gathering of colleagues. One veteran related to me a ceremony he had on the job: a well-respected officer asked those present to speak well of lost friends, if they felt like it, then they had a moment of silence and carried on with the job. The least profound experience I’ve had was at the National Memorial in Ottawa, where a bunch of mid-career captains used the event as a way to catch up and barely shut their mouths for the speeches. Not that they missed much: the Chaplain-General took the time to tell us that our brave predecessors sacrificed their lives and youth, in part, to secure a harassment-free workplace. I don’t expect it will get better this year, or ever.
When it comes to local ceremonies, I understand, I really do, that organizers want to convey their thoughts about the fallen and want to do so in detail. Please try to keep speeches few and short, and ceremonies simple and purposeful. The more wreaths at a local ceremony that dignitaries want to lay, the more elements of the program you have, the longer you keep that young private soldier, who was bussed from a base that morning, from having a beer with his or her friends afterwards. For many young soldiers, the post-ceremony refreshment time is where their NCOs open up about the really hard stuff they’ve been through and let the new guys listen. It’s meaningful and right that your local business and civic leaders want to show respect for the dead, but it means more for everyone involved if you do it after the ceremony.
The National War Memorial itself is a great illustration on the pitfalls of trying too hard. Traditionally, the memorial was just let alone by the authorities, except for ceremonies. In 2006, a couple of drunks peed on it. While this was offensive, drunks doing offensive things is a fact of life. A confident society with reasonable people in charge would have let the legal system work out the mischief charges and carried on. Not long after, however, the CAF decided to post sentries at the memorial to guard it from stray drunks. Then, tragically, one of the sentries, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, was murdered in a terrorist attack in 2014 while performing this duty. So now the Ottawa Police guard the sentries, who in turn guard the memorial. Imagine yourself as a Canadian sapper who entered a major firefight in Panjwai, in a bulldozer with steel hastily welded to the windows because the chronically under-equipped CAF had no proper armoured bulldozers available, and think of this obscene waste of everyone’s time and money. If Canadian troops are looking at the memorial from the beyond, they’re looking in disbelief, not reverence. And they’re making snarky comments, too.
Talk less, do more
The overwrought sanctimony, from poppy policing to endless speeches and wasted resources, usually comes from an unmet psychological need to imbue meaning in what have been, for most people, relatively peaceful, uneventful lives. We attach ourselves to the deeds of others in the great dramas of the recent past, like the near-suicidal bravery of a Lancaster bomber crew pounding the Ruhr in 1944 or the nobility of blue berets trying slow the massacre in Rwanda 50 years later. But by binding ourselves too closely to these stories, we take what is theirs. Maybe we should just listen — to what they say or what they don’t say.
And though it’s challenging, maybe we honour them by quietly creating meaning in our own lives. Be kind and decent to people. Do what fulfills you, even if that is very hard and uncertain. Make something of the freedom preserved at such a high price. Other people died to give you your lives of peace. Enjoy what you have. Don’t act in ways that prevent others from enjoying what they have.
And, if you so feel, once a year, pin a poppy to your lapel and attend a small ceremony. Or don’t. It’s a free country.
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