Pathos, Poppies and the Torch


Last month, during the week prior to November 11 (Remembrance Day in the UK; Veterans Day in the US) I watched several documentaries about World War I that included actual films taken on the battlefields. It was impossible for me to view those films without a deep sense of pathos for the soldiers in the trenches.

Since 1918, wearing an artificial poppy flower has been a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers who died in World War I. The woman who started the custom was a US teacher by the name of Moira Bell Michael. Inspired by the poem of Canadian Army Doctor John McCrae, In Flanders Fields, Ms. Michael wrote the poem below, a poem which explains the meaning behind the wearing of a poppy:

We Shall Keep The Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

But what is the lesson that was wrought in Flanders Fields? McCrae’s lesson, as it appeared in the last stanza of his poem was this:

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.


In other words, fight your foes. Be willing to spend millions of solders’ lives and billions of dollars to defend whatever it is your administration declares to be the foe.

British author H.G. Wells wrote a book titled The War That Will End War in which he argued only the defeat of German militarism could end war. Well German militarism was defeated in 1918. And it was defeated again in 1945. And guess what? We still have wars and military conflicts (according to there have been at least 43 wars since WWI).

Seems to me we can continue to “take up the quarrel with the foe”  or we can use our ability to think creatively and find alternatives to war. Pathos and remembrance poppies for the lost lives of young men and women are not enough. We need a torch to light the path that leads to ways to end conflict. What we don’t need is a torch of vengeance.

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