Saturday, 9 November 2013

In Defense of White Poppies, and other Heresies

     I have always been very conflicted about Remembrance Day. On the one hand, of course I am grateful for the courage and sacrifice of those who are willing to take up arms, wear the uniform and defend out country. And on the other hand, I hate war. How could I not?
     That particular conflict is not especially difficult to resolve. War in particular, and violence in general, are unquestionably evil. Violence is simply never a morally valid means of resolving disputes, and it must not be permitted to succeed as such, and so it must be resisted, with as little force as possible, but as much as necessary to bring the violence to an end with minimal loss of life. I have previously compared it to handling poop; if a sewage pipe suddenly ruptures and starts spraying waste around the room, a squeamish desire to avoid getting your hands dirty will only ensure everything else gets dirtier. We should rightly praise as a hero the person who overcomes his disgust, wades in promptly and fixes the problem, but poop is poop, filthy and disgusting. I think we should view violence the same way, as something horrible to be avoided, but not to fear so much that we empower those who are willing to use it.
     And so I gratefully and whole-heartedly hail as heroes those who reluctantly but courageously face the horrors of war so that others may live in peace. And yet, I am still uncomfortable with this holiday, because hidden among the pious paeans are some pernicious ideas which really do need to be vigorously rejected.

     There's a sign outside my local MLA's office this week which reads: "The poppy is a symbol of why we are free." Well, yeah, on one level this is true, but on another, no. The First World War, whence came the poppy symbol and John McCrae's famous poem, was not fought "to keep us free". It was a stupid, stupid war that started because some idiot thought it would be a good idea to murder an archduke, and then everybody called everybody else's bluff. Whatever started the war, though, it soon became about the war itself: victory at all costs.  Consider the last stanza of 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.
     It is perhaps heretical to criticise this otherwise fine and poignant poem, the first two stanzas of which are indeed brilliant and worthy of their popularity, but this bit is a particularly egregious example of what economists call the "sunk cost fallacy". While it's a foolish error to throw good money after bad, it's downright evil to keep on killing in order to somehow vindicate the fallen. If the fight is just (that is, if its purpose is to resist force and restore peace), then by all means keep fighting. But to pursue victory, just so that the dead shall not have died in vain? Dangerous nonsense, particularly if both sides are thinking that way, which they were. And so for four years, young men bled and choked and died in their millions. 

     We rightly honour our soldiers in that war for their courage and their sacrifice, but to say that they fought to keep us free is simply not true. What they fought so valiantly for King and Country to protect us from was really only an army of other equally valiant young men fighting for essentially the same motives. Even more tragically, the victory they brought us was ultimately used to help pave the way for the Second World War. And while WW2 might have been aptly characterize as The Good War, in that fascism was pretty clearly the enemy of freedom, WW1 was just a terrible, futile waste of lives.
     And so yes, it is true that free peoples need to be prepared to fight, in order to resist by force those who would through force make them unfree. But in the big picture, it is force itself which is the true enemy, and the only justification for the use of force is to resist someone else's choice to use force in the first place. I am sympathetic, therefore, to those who prefer to wear a white poppy as an explicit rejection of military action, because it is so very easy to twist respect for our veterans' sacrifices into support for the policies that made those sacrifices necessary.

     I think most of us understand in principle that one can object to a particular military mission without disrespecting the soldiers tasked with carrying it out. But in practice this is a much harder principle to realize, because opinions about policy often correlate with the choice to put on the uniform; all other things being equal, someone who approves of a particular mission is more likely to enlist than someone who does not.
     This means that, at least in countries where the military is composed of volunteers, when I stand up and say for example "Let's not invade Carthage!" I'm not just expressing disagreement with the leaders who want to invade Carthage; I'm also implicitly challenging the judgment of every person who enlisted because they thought invading Carthage was a good idea and they wanted to be a part of it. And it's exceptionally hard for many of us to recognize the distinction between disagreeing with someone and disrespecting them. We think it's disrespectful to say, "I think you're wrong". But it isn't.

     Respect is not synonymous with agreement. Indeed, respect is largely meaningless if you only respect people you agree with. Respect means acknowledging that someone has a different and valuable perspective from your own, and that while you may not agree, you are open to dialogue and the possibility that their reasons may turn out to be superior to your own. I respect you when I invite you to change my mind, and when I show a good-faith expectation that you will wisely consider my own arguments, whatever you may ultimately conclude about them. Violence is the very antithesis of this principle of respect.

     Earlier this week, I saw a Facebook meme circulating that said something to the effect of, "If you see someone wearing a white poppy, punch them for a veteran." In other words, use violence to avenge a perceived insult.
     No, I say. Don't punch anyone, ever, for saying something you disagree with, however much you think it offends your honour or that of our heroes. If you do so in my presence, I will try to stop you, with as little force as possible, but as much force as necessary.

1 comment:

  1. Well put Tom. I especially like the phrase: ''Respect is not synonymous with agreement. Indeed, respect is largely meaningless if you only respect people you agree with.'' Politicians should heed this.