Thursday, November 12, 2009

More than a poppy

In Canada, the poppy is the official symbol of Remembrance Day. The Canadian Legion sells felt poppies as a fundraiser for disabled veterans. People wear the poppies in their lapels and coats for several days around Remembrance Day. It’s not a common practice in the US, so I was surprised and pleased to get one from a Canadian co-worker today. It made me think about what it means to support the troops.

I don’t have many direct connections to the military. I have an uncle and a couple of cousins in the Canadian armed forces, but I’m not very close to them and don’t see them often. My grandfather fought in world war II, but he rarely spoke of it, certainly not to children. He died of Alzheimer’s disease when I was a teenager, so I was never had the chance as an adult to talk with him about his life. He immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands when he was 18, and so volunteered for the Dutch Free Army – mostly likely the Princess Irene Brigade. I do know that he was stationed in the Netherlands and got in trouble for “losing” his supplies. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he had gone to visit his family and given them all he had – so many people were starving during the war.

What does it mean to support the troops? It’s easy to wear a poppy. It’s easy for public figures to praise and thank members of the armed forces at memorial services. These symbols do matter to people, but if that’s as far as it goes, it’s not enough. What else do the troops need? Enough money to pay soldiers a decent salary and to equip and train them properly. In the US, I’d never argue for more spending on the military – this country spends a staggering amount on defense. In Canada, it’s a different story and our military has been seriously underfunded. We’re in a world where militaries are necessary and, if we’re sending people into situations where they are likely to be injured or killed, we are obligated to equip them properly. War damages people, both physically and psychologically. As a society, we have a responsibility to provide pensions and health care to soldiers. These are the easy points – they take money and organization, but aren’t particularly contentious.

As a society, we also have a responsibility to take the decision to use our militaries seriously. We owe to our militaries. We particularly owe it to the civilians, who did not volunteer for danger. We cannot take this lightly. Now, I’m sure that the generals and the government always think they’re taking these decisions seriously. My point is that that’s not enough. As a society, we need to question those in power about why we’re going to war and challenge them to find another way. As private citizens, protests and writing are often our only tools. This may not feel like support sometimes; being questioned can be very difficult. However, I firmly believe that preventing unnecessary harm is at least as important as wearing a poppy.

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