In Flanders Field
By Patrick F. Cannon
In Flanders Field the poppies grow
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.
These lines by Canadian physician, soldier and poet John McCrae – who himself died of pneumonia near the end of World War I in 1918 – are the reason the poppy became associated with Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth and Armistice Day in the United States.
Armistice Day has now become Veterans Day here, but the sale of fabric (now plastic) poppies by members of the American Legion seems to be dying out. When I was young, it was rare to see people not wearing a poppy just before, during and shortly after Armistice Day, always commemorated on November 11, the day the war ended. Now…well, how many poppies did you see on Monday?
In this country, poppies are sold by the American Legion, with the funds raised going to programs to support veterans. The Legion, like its British counterpart, was formed after World War I. As with so many similar organizations, membership has slowly declined as veterans of World War II – which after 1945, made up its largest cohort – died. This despite the fact that membership is now open to any veteran or active service member of the Federal armed services. The Legion is not alone – membership continues to decline in service and fraternal organizations as well.
So, it’s now rare to see a Legionnaire selling poppies. This is not the case in the United Kingdom and Canada. It would be rare to see a politician in either appearing without a poppy on November 11. I once arrived in London on that day, and was immediately confronted by a red-coated military pensioner selling poppies. I bought one, thus joining almost everyone I saw that day with a red flower in their lapel. From recent news reports from London, I see it’s still much the same.
Ditto Canada. Indeed, a legendary Canadian hockey commentator was just fired for shaming immigrants who didn’t realize they should have bought and worn the red symbol. Don Cherry, described as “Canada’s most polarizing, flamboyant and opinionated hockey commentator,” discovered that his 85 years didn’t immunize him from being fired by Rogers Sportnet for calling out recent immigrants to our northern neighbor for not buying and wearing a poppy. As he so elegantly put it: “You people…who love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy…”
Few people in this country any longer realize the significance of November 11, 1918. Or how many million soldiers and sailors died in the four years leading up to it. Perhaps one of the reasons why poppy sales persist in the United Kingdom and Canada is that their casualties were so much higher than ours. 116,000 Americans died in the war (or 0.13 percent of the population); the UK had 887,000 combat deaths (2.0 percent) and Canada 64,000 (1 percent, all volunteers). Both Australia and New Zealand lost approximately 1.5 percent of their populations.
In all of our wars, combat and related deaths have been approximately 1.1 million, with the Civil War accounting for nearly half of the total. One wonders if that many of our citizens now pause on Veterans Day to think about these losses, or the troubled lives of those who survive. Watching this year’s parade on the evening news, the now mostly elderly marchers far outnumbered the watching crowd. To be sure, the politicians spent the day mouthing the usual platitudes, but few of them have actually served, unlike the post-World War II generation. President Trump, like Bill Clinton before him, did everything he could to avoid service. How hollow their patriotic blather always sounds.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon