Join the Conversation:
The Politics of Poppies

Since World War I, red poppies have symbolised the loss of military lives in war. The imagery stems from two poems, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician John McRae in 1915 and “We Shall Keep the Faith,” written by American professor Moina Michael in 1918.

Following Michael’s lead, many people still choose to wear a red poppy around Remembrance Day and Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice of military personnel in wartime. Many other people, however, choose not to wear a red poppy, believing the message too one-sided to capture the complexities of war.

Maya Eichler, a feminist scholar of militaries and military conflict, and Jessica Lynn Wiebe, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran and artist, aim to open a conversation about the politics of poppies. What does the red poppy mean today? What does the symbol leave out? What might the red poppy mean in other cultures and circumstances?

As the politics of poppies illustrates so well, there is no single story of war. At the same time, there is often resistance to hearing different, and sometimes conflicting, stories about war.

We invite you, readers of Understorey Magazine, to join this conversation.

The images below show art work by both Maya and Jessica. The text provides their own statement about their piece and initial questions to each other.

How would you answer the questions below?

Do you have other questions for Maya or Jessica?

Do you wear a red poppy? Why or why not?

Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box at the end of the article.

 

“The National Politics of War and Peace”

 

The National Politics of War and Peace by Maya Eichler

“The National Politics of War and Peace” is a Canadian flag Maya created out of red and white poppies. The white poppy campaign was first initiated by a group of UK women, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, in the 1930s. Its intent is to commemorate all victims of war—not just military but also civilian—and wearing the white poppy symbolises a commitment to working for peace. In Canada and the UK, however, wearing the white poppy can be controversial. The Royal Canadian Legion has spoken out against the white poppy and characterised it as disrespectful of military members and their sacrifices.

Every November, Maya struggles with the politics of poppies and with the divisiveness between those who choose the red or the white flower. She has worn the white poppy, both a white and red poppy, and on occasion a red poppy. In the fall of 2014, the politics of poppies seemed particularly heightened when a Canadian soldier was killed on Parliament Hill. That year, Canadians were called upon to start wearing the red poppy to show respect for soldiers well in advance of Remembrance Day on November 11. At the time, Maya was teaching a class on Canadian Foreign Policy in which there was much discussion of Canada’s shift in emphasis from peacekeeping to combat over the previous decade and a half.

She decided to create “The National Politics of War and Peace” to express both the personal and political tensions that emerge from how people choose to talk about past wars and how people make sense of Canada’s military identity today. She wanted to draw attention to how commemoration is political and shapes current understandings of Canada’s military role in the world. Creating a piece of art seemed like a potentially productive way to engage others in these difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

Maya: What is your reaction to the flag I made out of red and white poppies?

Jessica: When I first saw your work, I did not understand what the white poppy represented. In the past, I had accepted the interpretation of those around me, with no research, investigation, or questioning on my own. I had perceived the white poppy as a stand against the military and war. It was uncomfortable to confront my own lack of deeper questioning. As a result of engaging with your work, I now understand the history of the white poppy in relation to the broader politics of war.

 

“Root Funding”

 

Root Funding by Jessica Lynn Wiebe

In “Root Funding,” Jessica used a photograph she took of two Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) rolling past her position in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. Using collage, she replaced the vehicles with images of poppies. During this time in her art practice (2014), Jessica was beginning to look deeper into the politics of the war in Afghanistan. She noted how the poppy is represented in Canada, for remembrance and sacrifice.

However, as a soldier with the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, she recognised the poppy as the root funding of the conflict, fuelling the drug industry and the fighting. To her, the poppy in this context represented vulnerability and danger. According to the United Nations Afghanistan Opium Survey, the main profits from the opium trade go to the drug traffickers, warlords, and the insurgency. Therefore, a good spring poppy harvest indicates an intense fighting season.

With this work, Jessica wanted to draw awareness to how the poppy manifested specific meanings in different places and cultural contexts. This work also highlights, if only at a surface level, the political and economic complexities and nature of the war and its perpetuation.

Jessica: What is your reaction to “Root Funding”?

Maya: I really like how you let the piece speak to the uncomfortable truth of the underlying war economy. But when I first saw the piece, I was most struck by its aesthetic beauty and its contrast with my aesthetic image of war. I felt a tension and a lingering discomfort with how you had “beautified” the Light Armoured Vehicles. But that discomfort made me look again, and think again, about the different ways in which we buy into war, whether for economic reasons, ideas of patriotism and sacrifice, or visual appeal—and how entangled they are often with one another.

Maya Eichler and Jessica Lynn Wiebe

About Maya Eichler and Jessica Lynn Wiebe

Maya Eichler is Canada Research Chair in Social Innovation and Community Engagement and assistant professor of Political and Canadian Studies and Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. She conducts research on the transition from military to civilian life, gender and the armed forces, military families, and the privatisation of military security. She co-chairs the 5th Canadian Division and MSVU Operation Honour Community Working Group. She also serves as Associate Editor for the International Feminist Journal of Politics.

Jessica Lynn Wiebe is from Brandon, Manitoba, currently living and working in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She graduated with her BFA from NSCAD University in 2015 and with her BEd from Acadia University in 2016. Jessica’s work responds to her time in the military as a soldier and educator. She employs storytelling and performance in a multi-disciplinary practice. Thematically, Jessica’s work critically examines and deconstructs powerful experiences through disparate connections to specific objects and place. Her work questions how identity is shaped by experience and how this connects her in a local and global context. Jessica is currently an Artist in Residence at the MacPhee Centre for Creative Learning in Dartmouth, NS.

3 thoughts on “Join the Conversation:
The Politics of Poppies

  1. Ken Hynes

    I appreciate the opportunity to comment. While I agree that the red poppy may mean different things in different cultural contexts, it is clearly, and in a very uncomplicated way, a symbol of remembrance and sacrifice of Canadian sailors, soldiers, and aviators.
    No one desires peace more than a soldier who has seen war and it’s immediate aftermath – that may be why there has been much negative reaction to the so-called ‘white poppy campaign’. I personally believe that the traditional red poppy represents both remembrance and the cost of war and that the white poppy is unnecessary and potentially divisive symbology.

    Reply
  2. Peter Gould

    The poppy has become one of the most powerful symbols in Canadian society but, unfortunately, it has acquired ideological baggage over the years. The overwhelming majority of people who wear poppies to commemorate the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers, invariably consider it “bad taste” to discuss the full range of personal and political issues around war. During the several years of Canada’s involvement in the recent war in Afghanistan, expressions of support for the troops expanded outside poppy-wearing season to “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers and federal public servants in Ottawa wearing red t-shirts on Fridays. These expressions were demonstrations of character and depth by many Canadians. However, that trend was not accompanied by significant public debate of the wisdom of the involvement of the CAF in Afghanistan. Many Canadians were surprised to hear PM Harper announce to the press that he did not believe the Taliban could be defeated in Afghanistan, but this was a view held by many international affairs and defence specialists in Ottawa. Do the sacrifices made by Canadian soldiers in conflict zones not merit more intellectual and spiritual reflection, at a deeper level, by Canadians? This lacuna has been a disappointment for me. The work by Maya Eichler and Jessia Lynn Wiebe are important examples of how efforts by artists to re-examine the meaning of Canada’s involvement in this, or any war, can help Canada as a society to mature.

    Reply
  3. Kelly Bannister

    Thanks for this invitation to a conversation that I have been curious about for awhile. I do my best at this time of year to show respect for those who have been in, or been directly affected by war, while acknowledging that war is not part of my own belief for a healthy world. My dad lost his father very early due to his service in the navy – not do to his duties but because he was sent to an unfinished navy hospital without medical supplies and died for lack of access to basic antibiotics. It kind of epitomizes my personal view of the general senseless tragedies (visible and invisible) of war. So I try to live and let live. But a couple of years ago, I came to a Remembrance Day ceremony at my child’s elementary school and found a parent dressed in his camouflage uniform doing a slide show with tanks and weapons and telling our K-Gr7 kids that “there is no greater form of Canadian citizenship than to serve your country in the military”. My live and let live approach does not extend to indoctrination of our children with glorifying war as the greatest form of Canadian citizenship. I let the teacher know that to include such a one-sided presentation was not acceptable and I suggested we invite a pacifist and people of different faith traditions to also speak on war if we wished to educate our children. I struggle with the poppy phenomenon and think the whole poppy industry could use a deep reconsideration – how could poppies be manufactured in a way that is more congruent with what they are intended to express? Done so without causing more damage to the earth (throw away plastic and unsafe stick pins) and with an intention that is clear so we could explicitly choose to relate to and support it. For example, I could wear this kind of poppy – a handmade beaded or woven poppy created by a First Nations or Metis craftsperson with explicit intention. As Richard Blackwolf, president of the Canadian Aboriginal Veterans is quoted: “They are something that is unique to the people who make them. The intent is perfect, because it is of the people, for the people, by the people.” It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but at least if you choose a poppy like this you know what it represents. My point is that poppies could be a small tool at this time of year in clarifying our intentions and fostering more understanding of one another and our diverse views/experiences/beliefs rather than inadvertently flame political and social divisiveness. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/aboriginal-veterans-remembrance-poppy-beaded-1.3313082

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