Thursday, November 11, 2010

White Poppies for Peace

Sophia has been going to school with a white poppy in her blazer lapel. Far less widely recognised than the red poppy sold by the Royal British Legion in the weeks before Armistice Day, the white poppy is a commemoration of the innocents killed in war and a commitment to strive toward the non-violent resolution of conflicts and an understanding of the causes of war – in order to better avoid it.

One of the premises of the Peace Pledge Union, the oldest secular pacifist organisation in Britain and purveyor of white poppies, is that the general (in our society) assumption that ‘a little violence’ can be a useful tool – is a grievous mistake. Reading about the background to the sale and wearing of white poppies has given me tremendous pause for thought over recent days. Violence is endemic in our society – from the very basic level of the family, through the state and to the international arena.

I was brought up with the idea that violence, judiciously used, was an acceptable means to an end. If we didn’t behave, my siblings and I were punished with our pants swiftly pulled to our knees and a few hard applications of a wooden spoon or a bare hand. Later, my mother took to slapping me across the face in order to curb my ‘dumb insolence’. Her father had been a captain in the Royal Navy -- and had abused both his wife and his children. She had no other paradigm for parenting. As far as I know, such punishment was the norm in my friends’ families, too.

I have no other paradigm for parenting either, though I have read of families who manage to maintain discipline and harmony through mutual respect, whose parents say that they could never imagine striking a child.

But I have smacked my children: the older ones swear that I hit them more than I do the younger ones, and I’m sure that they’re right. But as I have matured, both as a person and a parent, realise that a smack – or the fear of one – doesn’t work. And do I want my children to live in fear of my smacking them? Would I prefer that their behaviour were governed by understanding and respect, or by fear? I firmly believe that my Best Beloved’s raising his hand to me would be the only reason for me to pack my bags, so how could I possibly consider spanking my children – so much smaller than I, so much more fragile… and so trusting.

And, worse, I see the older ones following my example: if the Little Ones’ behaviour becomes too annoying, a smack from one of the Big Ones (despite their having been forbidden to strike their siblings – justify that, will you: ‘I can hit someone else in order to impose my will, but you can’t’) will soon follow.

Violence, even on the micro-family level, begets only violence.

And as happens within the family, so happens within the State, and so happens between Nations. Change things at the family level and at the community level, and grows the chance of a paradigm shift at a higher level. Once again we return to Gandhi’s oft-quoted remonstrance to ‘be the change that you want to see in the world.’

A friend of mine, a former Army helicopter pilot once told me (in response to my saying that I ‘would try to get’ something done) ‘There’s no ‘trying’, Asproulla. There’s doing, and there’s not doing.’ So from now on, I pledge to renounce violence as a means to and end, and to work on conflict resolution by peaceful means. One Day at a Time.

To do so is the only way to honour the white poppy in Sophia’s lapel. All else is lip service and window dressing.


  1. Good for you
    I have the utmost respect for those who fought, and died but being born in 1944 I saw too much bravado from those who survived. It made me uncomfortable and I cannot in good conscience wear a red poppy.
    The white poppy idea hits the mark for me.
    How can anyone be against the concept of an end to all war

  2. "How can anyone be against the concept of an end to all war"? I don't know. It doesn't matter one way or the other.

    But it is not the concept that matters, in fact the concept is irrelevant. It's the application. How could Europe, only 20 years after the cataclysm of WW1 plunge headlong into WW2? Certainly there is no evidence that anyone at all thought that WW2 was going to be less catastrophic than WW1.

    Platitudes and gratitude don't accomplish squat. Red poppies, white poppies, who cares? Maybe the yellow poppies feel left out. What does it matter?

    As a combat veteran, I don't see the value of hope, symbols, or prayers. I see those artifacts as phony shamans that we use to hide from the pornography of war. Close your eyes children.

    If you want to even begin to be serious about war and peace, start here, and examine your soul:

    "The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools."
    —Thucydides, 5th century BC

  3. I'm not totally sure what you're driving at here. No, there is no evidence that anyone thought that WW2 would be less catastrophic -- in fact the opposite with the increase in weapons technology. But that didn't bother those who funded the arms races... they grew fat off new ways to kill more soldiers and civilians alike. The voices that no-one gets to hear these days, and that the PPU strives to make audible, are those of the combat veterans who come back and say 'no more of this obscenity', and the voices of the COs who refuse to go in the first place despite enormous pressures.

    You have hard-won insights that most of us, particularly civilians who have grown up in 'peaceful' western societies (meaning that our wars are fought on other peoples' home grounds), are spared -- or have chosen -- as in the case of some other veterans -- to deny. I agree that symbols can be nothing more than fig leaves. But our other choices are forgetting, ignorance, or denial.

    The red poppy campaign, as it plays out in the UK these days is nauseating. Flipping through the newspaper this morning and seeing picture after picture of lost young lives 'honoured' on small wooden crosses with red poppies affixed, seeing a young soldier polishing a cross at a war memorial in Afghanistan, and knowing that if one doesn't support this steady beat of 'steadfastness' and 'sacrifice', one is considered shameful, a lesser human being, is depressing and infuriating. At least the white poppy reminds those who see it (and many find it inflammatory, and label those who wear it 'coward') that not only soldiers' lives are destroyed by conflict, and, symbol or not, I feel that that has some worth.

    Thucydides words are certainly food for thought. Thank you for introducing them into the discussion.

  4. Thucydides' comments need to be seen in the context of the Peloponnesian War, in which every citizen was a soldier -- not necessarily a scholar, but a soldier. And the survival of his home and hearth was immediately bound in his willingness and ability to fight.

  5. Skoteinia,

    I'm sorry I was not more comprehensible. Now, I have to figure out what I was trying to say :) During the First War, state war-profiteers blossomed beyond imagination, but only Germany had industrialized their war machine prior to the war. The English had to start from scratch, being pre-occupied with the economics of empire and short, brutal conflicts designed to keep their subjects in-line and subservient. The French were barely more prepared than the British: they had a very large army, but were not prepared to fight with a steady rain of steel that the world have never before seen. The French had seen the future of war during the Franco-Prussian War, but for a complex number of reasons didn't do much to give the German-Krupp alliance a cause to pause.

    So, with that windy run up, here is my point: after all those deaths, and the destruction of much of western Europre, its industrial machine, and its soldiers, both sides went at it with renewed ferocity only 20 years later. The war criminals who would grow fat as Europe re-armed, had two powerful allies--the vast public who suckled at the breast of the propagandistic machine of nationalism, the mutated sense of pride fueled by slogans, the usual xenophobia, and the excitement of 'war' which allowed the citizenry to escape the humdrum, boring lives they thought they lived. The other ally was those who willingly became soldiers for god, country, Mickey Mouse, the sex appeal of a young man in uniform, and any of a thousand other reasons. Yes, women played their role in cajoling young men to join up, and be conscripted, and were themselves enlistees or conscripts to replace the men who were now soldiers. It even provided a push for the various women's equality movements following ww2.

    It's hard to see how veterans, whether they spoke of the horrors of war or not, could have accomplished in swaying public opinion against ww2 or any other war flies in the face of history. I risked everything before I was dragged into the army, and the 42 years since my discharge doing the same thing, only this time with the sainted mantles of 'decorated', 'wounded', 'veteran', 'hero', 'drug addled', 'pot smoking', and 'psycho vet,' rose petals strewn in my path. I joined more anti-war groups than even the FBI had ever heard about. Who listened? My fellow crazy vets.

    Today on I told 8 people not to wish me a "Happy Veterans Day' because it didn't make me happy to be a veteran, I told 9 people that I didn't wanted my service 'honored' because I should have gone to Canada or jail.

    So step up to the plate and take on the state, as I did. Until a significant minority of civilians are willing to fill the jails, this will continue and get worse, until we all kill ourselves and rid the planet of its greatest threat, we band of brothers and sisters.

    What did you do today?

    Anonymous, usually I don't respond to people who don't have the simple courage to even associate themselves with their own words. I don't see any reason to change my mind.

  6. a colleague asked me to read comments recorded as thucydides’. both anon and adin draw thoughts out of air for purposes of their own. thucydides value today is his mundane observation that we shall all be dead and forgotten in 100 years. all else is pretense.

  7. Hi, dianne,

    Thanks for your input and insight. You've got me curious: how did you and your colleague stumble on this little exchange? You're pretty adamant in your statement. I don't know who anon is (hint, hint, anon?), but his/her comment seems pretty valid in that judging the behaviour of citizens of the ancient Greek city states by the behaviour of modern citizens in todays nation states (and vice versa) needs to be done with caveats. Same-same wrt any discussion of slavery and women. Things were different then. Also I'd hesitate to say that all his other work (though I admit to having only read extracts) can be dismissed as pretense.

    Your reading of the comments (I don't know if you've read the original post on which they were made), and your commenting at all took some effort on your part. I invite you to expand on what you said so that I can better see what you're getting at.

  8. colleague is former student in my class. I did not stumble upon this boggy blog. she asked me to read a reference of thucydides on a blog she reads. i did. he wrote about 2,500 years ago. the sole thing about him seems to be that along with herodotus they tried to chronicle history based upon eyewitness accounts, rather than by just the victors self-aggrandizing memories of their victories.

    by "pretense" i was referring to adin and anon's deductions. nothing hidden here, other than my office. when it's it's open, you can find it here-under a grey rock in the woods, MWF, on months that begin with the letter "J" and are 4 letters long.

    i'm not getting at anything. i wrote what i wrote. kept it simple and short, that's all.