Years ago, when I was the likeliest lass in AP English class, I won a VFW award for an essay I wrote about the United States and globalization. My parents, as well as several of my teachers, were amazed that I took home the prize, because my essay was an impassioned (and probably jejune) plea for our nation to be more involved in the wider world than less. It was the Cold War’s dying days, and many of the Young Republicans I knew wanted a return to America First. I didn’t agree with them then, and I don’t agree with them now.
But more important, the VFW–men and women (still mostly men, then) of different ages and experiences–didn’t see anything wrong with my thoughts as expressed. A large part of that, I now know, is due to the fact that each of them had once served in defense of my freedom of expression. People who have walked the military walk don’t take what it safeguards lightly.
However, as a former literature teacher, I believe there’s a little more to it than that, and I’ll illustrate what I mean by extending the VFW story a bit. Since I did win the essay trophy, I was invited later that year to stand up in front of my local VFW chapter as they gathered to celebrate Veterans Day; I was to recite Lieutenant Colonel John McRae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” I remember every word of it still, as do many of my Canadian friends and colleagues (McRae was Canadian, and that poem has become iconic in his home nation).
I know I’m not the only one in the Book Riot community who is fascinated with World War I poetry. “In Flanders Fields” isn’t the best or even necessarily the most famous poem of that era (famous status might have to go to Wilfrid Owens’ “Dulce et Decorum Est”). But the reason I’m writing about it today is because I think “In Flanders Fields” is one of the most immediate and truest. The “poppies that blow” between the rows of crosses are there in abundance, sadly, because of the decomposing bodies beneath. McCrae, a medical doctor, knew this; he also knew that those poppies were as beautiful and transient as our human lives and relationships. Years after reading his poem out loud to my Hudson Valley veterans’ group, I taught “In Flanders Fields” to my students (who happened to be soldiers themselves) while I had them read Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I pointed out that the German soldiers saw the poppies, too–and the poppies grew over their graves, too.
On Veterans Day, I believe in remembrance for our fallen, and in honoring what they fought to protect–but I also try to remember that poppies don’t belong to the good guys or the bad guys. They remind us instead of our common humanity.