Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is a brilliant anti-war demonstration/installation marking the insanity of World War I. The title comes from a line in a soldier’s will. Each ceramic poppy represents a British soldier’s death — more than 800,000 in all. The organizers hope to fill the Tower’s moat by November 11th — Armistice Day. There would not be room enough to represent all the casualties of that conflict. The total number of military and civilian casualties from the war has been estimated at 37 million.
Horrible fact of life: most people assume it is the soldiers who tend to die in armed conflicts yet children actually account for most of the deaths. And the percentage of civilian victims has been rising steadily through the last hundred years: in World War II it was two thirds, and by the end of the 1980s it was almost 90 per cent. I suppose an installation that represented contemporary slaughter might use teddy bears instead of poppies. Today, it is safer to be a soldier than it is to be a non-combatant.
So before everyone races off to the next police action/round of sanctions/intervention/war it sure would be nice to consider that the Iraq war resulted in:
3.4 million displaced families
1/2 of all Iraqi children becoming orphaned in 2007
116 277 civilian casualties (an extremely conservative estimate constructed from records since no agency bothered to care enough to collect the data)
November 11th was called Remembrance Day in Canada. Each person wore a poppy over her/his heart. Each poppy was meant to represent one person’s death/sacrifice. The whole country spent a moment in silence to reflect upon the meaning of that death. My thoughts didn’t end with that moment of silence. The poppies were fuzzy and I recall touching the soft surface throughout the day. I was also a bit nervous of the sharp point of the pin. The field poppy was an abstract symbol but wearing it made space for big ideas to inhabit even a child’s mind. The serious nature of war became something tangible, personal and real.
WWI was supposed to be the war to end all wars and yet a hundred years later we still have elites pushing for wars that bring unimaginable suffering to the ordinary and obscene profits for a few.
At my school, every student was supposed to memorize the poem that follows in a moment.
We were taught that the purpose of remembering was not to glorify war but to end it. I think McCrae’s curse for those who would twist the real meaning of that blood sacrifice is perfect. I only wish his ghosts were more vengeful. Here’s a link to an editorial by Harry Leslie Smith (aged 91) that explains why he will no longer wear the poppy.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
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.
–Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae