Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Color Is Your Poppy?

The White Poppy is finally picking up some Canadian supporters, and generating the usual controversy that goes with it. Some surviving veterans from World War II are grousing that the white poppy is a sign of disrespect to them, and to the fallen — “our” fallen, as they are inclined to say, ignoring the fact that an increasing number of Canadian families do not have anyone in their lineage who served in either of the supposedly global conflicts.

Two members of my family served, and one is still alive. He is usually mute on the subject, but he once admitted that as his war in Europe was winding down he applied for transfer to the Asian arena because he was sure he no longer had the capacity for civilian life. I think it is fair, if grossly understated, to suggest he has conflicted feelings about his experiences as a combat soldier.

My own feelings are conflicted when it comes to honoring our fallen. Out in this part of Ontario we have a stretch of 16-lane highway that our Conservative Prime Minister has dubbed “The Highway Of Heroes.” Whenever one of our soldiers is killed in Afghanistan, their remains are flown back to the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, then shuttled down this highway via a convoy of hearses and police cruisers to Forensic Sciences in Toronto.

I've witnessed this grim convoy three times. The highway is closed and cleared. Bridges over it are filled with firefighters and citizens paying homage. The convoy flies silently over the empty asphalt. One of those black cars is carrying what's left of a man younger than myself. The other cars contain his family members. There are probably a million strange and predictable factors that led to this person enlisting, then fighting and dying in an entirely foreign country. But the blunt fact is he was killed obeying the orders of our government.

Meanwhile, military personnel who return with injuries and/or severe cases of PTSD face the fight of their lives when they attempt to coax medical support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veteran ombudsman Col. Pat Stogran has suggested our country behaves as if it would prefer our soldiers die on the battlefield. Meanwhile, no-one seems able to say how long we'll keep troops in Afghanistan, or what their final objective might reasonably be.

“Funerals are for the living,” my preacher grandfather used to counsel. Remembrance Day services are, too. If participants bore that in mind, we might spare ourselves from both the mawkish and the hawkish. I hope I can be forgiven for wearing both colors of poppy this week.

Also: Tony Hillerman remembers.

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