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England calls on its colonies for soldiers, Great War, 1914

StarEngland needed men from its colonies

Endorsing propaganda

Letter to The Gazette, newspaper of the University of Western Ontario, Canada

Re: Wearing a poppy

To the Editor:

I know that many people have good reasons for wearing a poppy. For some, it commemorates the death of a relative; for others, the memory of soldiers willing to risk their lives on behalf of their country. As a result, each year I feel sorely tempted to follow suit and wear a poppy myself. Then someone (an announcer, a newspaper editor, etc,) says "it."

"It" is the claim that we need to wear poppies to honour those who died so that we could be free. This construction is derived from the propaganda slogans of World War I and that's the problem. Those slogans were wrong then and they're wrong now. Canadian democracy wasn't threatened by the events surrounding World War I.

That war was a pissing contest between European colonial powers led by arrogant and insensitive political leaders who found themselves hopelessly entangled in a Byzantine maze of military alliances. Canada was dragged into that war because of its colonial heritage and its sycophantic ties to Great Britain.

The only serious resistance to this folly, not surprisingly, occurred in Quebec where the British colonial nature of the war was, for obvious reasons, more apparent than elsewhere. In any event, more than 60,000 Canadian soldiers went to a useless death, partly because they followed orders issued by marginally competent British or British-trained officers but mainly because they and the Canadian public believed the propaganda slogans about "making the world safe for democracy."

Canadian war cemeteries, drawingI am not willing to legitimate a propaganda slogan that got more than 60,000 people killed.

World War I, of course, is not the only war in which Canadians fought and died, but the "they died to make us free" model seems equally inappropriate to Canadian participation in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the (so-called) Gulf War. World War II is a different matter Hitler and Nazism were obvious evils which had to be eradicated. Even granting this, there are moral ambiguities associated with that war which we still have difficulty acknowledging.

In 1992, for instance, Brian and Terence McKenna made a documentary (The Valour and the Horror) which looked carefully at the bombing of German cities by Canadian aircrews. Although careful to praise the personal valour of individual airmen, the McKenna brothers pointed out that these bombs rarely hit military targets but did kill thousands of civilians.

Furthermore, they noted, the Allied command knew perfectly well that these bombs were missing military targets and killing civilians but continued the raids nevertheless, as a way of demoralizing hostile populations. Finally, the documentary suggested these mass killings contributed little if anything to winning the war. There was nothing new in any of this. Academic historians had been saying similar things for years but nobody listens to academics. A documentary on the CBC was another matter.

The response to the McKenna brothers was electric. Although many veterans were glad someone had finally had the courage to challenge the official version of history, other veterans and many veterans groups throughout Canada uttered squeals of rage. They used their influence to spark a Senate investigation and the CBC was pressured (with some success) to define the documentary a docudrama. In other words, it was fiction not history in contrast of course to the sanitized version of history promoted by veterans organizations. It was a disgraceful episode in recent Canadian history.

If we want the future to be a better place, we must confront the horrors of the past, even if that includes horrors for which Canada (or the United States or Great Britain or any of the other official good guys) were responsible and that means challenging all sanitized versions of history, even those that come masked beneath the emotionally charged image of a blood-red poppy.

Prof. Michael P. Carroll
University of Western Ontario
Thursday, November 12, 1998

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