In which an uneasy pacifist wears the poppy


My grandpa was a good-looking kid from the Canadian prairie when he marched away to war. He was shot on a hill in Italy during a pre-dawn raid. He fell in the cold, thick mud while it poured rain, everyone rushing past, a stampede. Bright red blood from his back thigh soaked into the thick fabric and the mud while he, unsure if he would live or die, was desperate with a fear more sharp than pain. A buddy of his pulled him to safety that day, carried him, slung over his back, gear and all, he ran them both straight down that hill.

He never talked about the war much. Oh, he sang old songs like “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! We’re going on a mighty mission” and joked about his wound, his buddies. But once, in uncharacteristic solemnity, he admitted that he’d never been so afraid in his life as he was that day on that hill, alone in the mud, surrounded by the sounds of his friends running and screaming and falling and dying in the dark.

“We were terrified,” he said. “We were just a bunch of kids.”

He came home. Many of his friends did not.

November 11 is Remembrance Day for Commonwealth nations. I have a plastic poppy pinned to my heavy fall coat. Since I was little-little, reciting In Flander’s Fields in school assemblies while holding paper cut-out poppies glued to green cardboard wreaths,I swore that I would always remember. My eldest daughter sang a song about peace in a school assembly yesterday, she asked me about war and soldiers, and I didn’t really know what to say but that it made me so sad.

N’oubliez pas.

War is complex, horrible, evil. As a Christian, I have felt lead to a path of peace-making but it’s an “uneasy pacifism” because I don’t know how it looks all the time, how best to live a consistent pro-life ethic with peace and love in a culture of violence, power and war. I know that pacifism is not total and absolute abhorrence of all violence – instead, to me, it’s a policy of non-aggression and active peace-making.

It’s living in the tension between my beautiful ideals and the ugly realities of the world, figuring out how to make-peace every day.

God, I’m so proud of him. I’m proud of my grandpa’s guts, of his bravery, his story. I’m proud of an entire generation’s commitment to a cause, proud of what they accomplished, proud of what they did in the face of fear and uncertainty.

I can’t bring myself to wear a pacifist’s white poppy. No, I need the blood-red one – baggage and uneasy pacifism, wonderings and tension, be damned.

This weekend, I remember my grandpa, I remember his friends, I remember my friends – and their husbands and wives, I remember every man and woman who has served in war-time. I remember the true cost and the reality of war. I listen to my daughter sing in her childish voice a song she can’t even fathom yet, and I will pass on the memories that I still carry of the look in his eye, that day he said: we were just kids. And I was so scared.

This is no day for nationalistic flag-waving nor idealistic condemnation. It’s a day for solemn remembrance, quiet knowing. One eye on the fields still covered with poppies, watered with blood and shit and mud, and on the wartorn homes of the world, for those that shall never grow old, the years never marking them.

May our veterans know how deeply I grieve with them, pray for them, love them, honour them. I fervently pray and speak and work for peace because I remember.

I will not break faith with them.

Lest we forget.

  • Krista Dalton

    As a daughter of military parents, I felt like you mirrored my own experience with pacifism. Thank you for your words!

  • Michelle Morr Krabill

    That was beautiful. Thank you.

  • Annemarie Sawatzky

    I come from a long line of pacifists. A long, long line. My great grandfather drove an ambulance in the war, and my great uncles served in the conscientious objector camps. I struggle with my own pacifism, and I wear a red button that says “To remember is to work for peace.” It’s the best I can do for now.

  • Bethany Suckrow

    Wow this is so beautiful. And I deeply resonate with these words :

    “I know that pacifism is not total and absolute abhorrence of all violence – instead, to me, it’s a policy of non-aggression and active peace-making. It’s living in the tension between my beautiful ideals and the ugly realities of the world, figuring out how to make-peace every day.”

    Living in a non-Commonwealth nation, I miss the symbolism and solemnity of the poppies on everyone’s shirt collars. I was in London on Remembrance Day in 2008, and it was sobering to see the cross markers and poppies lined up in the grass in front of Westminster Abbey, and to walk in places where so much history happened and understand that peacemaking doesn’t always mean the absence of violence.

    Thank you for sharing your grandfather’s story. It’s the best post I’ve read all week.

  • 1lori_1

    Love this….I agree with you completely. In first grade I learned every patriotic song that was written or close to it, due to my teacher. We would give concerts in the assembly amy heart still quivers when I hear them all. I think of so many lives given for our freedoms and still being given….

  • Louise

    I’m wearing my red poppy this week- my great grandfather died in WW1 and I want to honour those who continue to fight. I live in Paris, so no-one else is wearing one, but I’ve still got mine on and I look out for other British people who might have theirs too. On Sunday afternoon there is a remembrance service in English at Notre Dame- I went last year as well and it was so moving, but so gospel-centered and wonderful at the same time.

  • Ashleigh Baker

    Love. <3

  • Leanne Penny

    I had no knowledge of this tradition of wearing poppies but I love “In Flanders Fields” and can’t sing it without crying.

    When I was in High School I was a patriot and spoke of government and war and things I had no business talking about. Then people around me started dying and I felt that permanent sting. I wept for those whose soliders never came home, I cried when the bad guys on Law and Order got shot because good GOD they were SOMEONE’S baby once!

    Then my brother joined the Army this summer, the only member of my immediate family I had left and I had to reevaluate it all when I saw him marching in his uniform, shouting battle cries of shooting and defending. I asked him about it, he said he hated those parts, but the though of helping mentally wounded soldiers in Health Services fueled him.

    I still can’t believe he’s all I have left and that they could send him far away with a piece of paper. Yet I have to beam with pride in my confusion, to love him and all he’s working for and to pray pray PRAY he stays stateside, be it selfish or not.

  • Miles O’Neal

    Thanks you so much for this beautiful piece. Like Bethany, I especially loved this:

    “I know that pacifism is not total and absolute abhorrence of all violence – instead, to me, it’s a policy of non-aggression and active peace-making. It’s living in the tension between my beautiful ideals and the ugly realities of the world, figuring out how to make-peace every day.”

  • Emily Wierenga

    wow girl. i wrote on this exact same thing. only i did it in a letter to my grandpa. you are a kindred spirit, friend. love you.

  • amber@therunamuck

    oh i love you.

  • Jillie

    V e r y well said, Sarah. A moving tribute to your grandpa…and all those who have fought for our freedoms today. I wear my poppy with pride in our fallen Canadian men, past and present. And with great sorrow for the loss of human life suffered. And with gratitude. Yes, we must “fervently pray and speak and work for peace…BECAUSE we remember”. Amen.

  • Pingback: On poppies, flags and Remembrance Sunday (part 2) « the soapbox()

  • Barburk

    I will always remember. And I too will work for peace in any way I can, starting in my own house.

    My father, a conscientious objector, helped build the TransCanada Highway for several months before being sent home to the farm, because farmers were needed too.

    My father-in-law fought in the war — on the enemy side (mostly because there was nothing for a young man in Germany to do except join the army). He then spent years in POW camps where American guards spit into the prisoners food and put salt into their drinking water. He told his sons never to join anyone’s army!

    War is such a waste of resources! They are not “troops” or “soldiers,” they are people with stories, with loves, like you and me. The real enemy is within us all, not on the other side of some kind of “red line”.

  • Christie

    This is the tune my soul is singing also, I just didn’t know how to put it into words. A long family history of pacifism, 2 cousins in the marines… nothing is simple. How can we honour military courage, not in spite of a longing for peace, but because of it? Well said.

  • Kelly

    Thank you. I don’t even know for sure what I am. I don’t want war. Everything about it repulses me. But as I stare at the picture of my 18-y.o. grandfather in the trenches of WWII, I can’t help but honor him. And I honor his mom who had to send him off. Can’t imagine.

  • Dana

    I wear a poppy every year and then stick that little plastic flower in my car somewhere until it fades beyond recognition some months later. The American Legion (organization of veterans) always gives away the flowers for donations in front of stores and on roadsides this time of year. By birth, to my maternal grandfather’s line, I became a member of the American Legion Auxiliary (us girls want a club, too, sometimes–grin!). I have never totally understood all that this legacy means in my family, but I proudly sign the membership card alongside my grandmother. . .and I wear the poppy while thinking of my Pap-pa in his big black chair–weary from that old war wound, but so full of life. So many things that we never forget.

  • Kimberley Dawn

    This Remembrance Day, I mulled it over and over. Why do I care? I don’t support war, I am uneasy about all references to the Canadian military, and yet on this day, I too wear my poppy (my fifth, and only one that actually made it to November 11) and I do my best to contemplate and remember. But it’s a hard-sell and its getting harder. There isn’t a “great evil” lurking just across a sea (at least not one that we can all agree is in fact a “great evil”) and so for me a giant question mark hovers over all wars. Should we be there? Should we be intervening and actively changing the course of another peoples’ history (because haven’t we done that enough already?), and how can I ever feel confident that we’re there for the right reasons (and not for oil, international status, to keep our buddy happy etc.)

    Each year, there are fewer WW veterans left. Fewer men and women who fought for wars that I have been raised to understand. Each November 11, there are more veterans with whom I do not know how to relate. Do I value their service in the Middle East? Do I value their work in other pockets of unrest and foreign involvement? And, how can I look them in the face and tell them I think they never should have been in those countries?

    And the truth is, I don’t know what to say about most of these current conflicts, but turning my back on these people feels just as wrong as would renouncing my grandfather’s service in Korea. These are people, made of flesh with blood that spills, and instead of spending their entire lives working for themselves within the safety of Canadian borders, they joined the military and tried to do something about the problems in the world.

    I do not know about war, but I know about selflessness and courage. To all who choose service to their country above service to themselves, to all who have come to understand this more clearly than I do, to all who have faced war. You have my whole-hearted respect.

  • Sidnie

    I need the blood-red one too.

  • Glen McGraw

    First, thank you for your transparency. This tension is so understandable and I feel it. As a veteran (Iraq) from a family of veterans (WW I, WW II, and Vietnam) and a believer I wrestle with these issues. I have come to a couple of conclusions.

    First, a pacifist who is not involved in solutions is in danger of making pacifism an idol. Without action to come to solutions pacifism is passive and hollow.

    Second, blind patriotism is just as idolatrous as pacifism without action. Government should be held accountable and questioned. This is where the people counterbalance those they have elected.

    Last is a question: what does war look like without Christians serving? We got together to pray, study, and worship together. That was self care. But we also talked about the ethical, moral, and legal issues involved with our duties. We then considered the Biblical implications of our actions.

    There is a dichotomy between faith and war. I have no good answers. And I think the theologian and philosopher will be debating these things 100 years from now. Thank you for your support of veterans while working out your pacifist side! Many blessings to you and I pray for great success of your book!