Poppies, Poems, and Soldiers Bodies

ad_142067697by Matt Sheedy

November 11th marks Remembrance Day in several commonwealth nations such as Canada, the UK, and South Africa, and, much like Veterans Day in the US, is commemorated with ceremonies to honor soldiers past and present, especially those who were killed in battle.

The most notable symbol of Remembrance Day is the red poppy, which is typically pinned to one’s lapel and worn in the weeks leading up to the event, especially in Canada and the UK. This year there is a massive art installation of close to 900,000 poppies surrounding the Tower of London in commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the First World War (as pictured above), while in Canada poppy sales broke all records, due in part to the recent murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was shot by a “lone wolf” gunman as he was standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, on October 22.

The use of the poppy as a symbol for Remembrance Day is linked to a 1915 poem by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Fields,” based on his experience in the battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. It begins as follows:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow/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.

Among other things, these lines have been memorialized on the ten-dollar bill, and are the closest thing to a “sacred” text in the collective Canadian imagination. Despite this status, however, the closing lines of the poem are rarely heard these days in official ceremonies, though they were ubiquitous during the First World War as a tool of propaganda, especially in the federal elections of 1917 in the heat of the Conscription Crisis. They read:

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.

As historian Ian McKay observes, these militaristic sentiments gave way to a more circumspect reading in Canada by the war’s end, as the horrors of trench warfare and the massive death toll—“the war to end all wars”—were revealed and a social narrative of “never again” began to take hold. The use of the poem today, with the poppy as its’ symbolic emblem, has been re-inscribed in ever new chains of signification, and is commonly linked with the “support our troops” slogan, popularized during the war in Vietnam and reproduced during the so-called “war on terror.”

One thing that remains consistent throughout this nearly 100-year historical narrative is the sacralization of soldiers’ bodies as the focal point of public attention, where the real personal sacrifices of those killed or wounded in battle are attached to concepts such freedom and democracy, including pro-war sentiments like those mentioned above that urge us to continue the battle lest they die in vein, to anti-war sentiments, such as the white poppy campaign, or the startling number of veteran suicides in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One thing that interests me about this narrative is how it resembles many public discourses about religion, where simplified representations of complex historical and contemporary phenomena are filled with meaning that reflect the ideas and interests of those who take them up in the present, which then become charged by reference to some imagined sacred past. Pierre Bourdieu offers a useful way to think about this problem in his book Language and Symbolic Power when talking about the use of political and religious language:

Specialized discourses can derive their efficacy from the hidden correspondence between the structure of the social space within which they are produced—the political field, the religious field, the artistic field, the philosophical field, etc.—and the structure of the field of social classes within which the recipients are situated and in relation to which they interpret the message. (41)

In this sense, the discourse surrounding Remembrance Day has at its core the idea of sacrifice that is reflected differently depending on the structure or make-up of the field in which it is represented. For those in the military or with families and friends touched by war, for example, it tends to mean something very different than for those who don’t have such a personal connection. Here the rhetoric about soldiers’ bodies serves as a powerful device for creating “affective publics” that must use these sacralised bodies as the primary site of discourse in support or opposition to the wars in question, past or present. What is often minimized or excluded from these debates are the complex histories, motivations, and interests that guide the decisions to go to war in the first place, to say nothing of how such ventures may or may not be linked to ideas like democracy and freedom.

It would seem that a similar dynamic is at play when we talk about religion in the public sphere, where a select set of simplified ideas and symbols are made to stand-in for complex historical and contemporary phenomena, thus reducing countless identities to the most dominant representations that are available in a given time and place. This can be seen with public discourses about Islam, for example, as I argue in a recent post, quoting Nabil Echchaibi, with common tropes such as “Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, [and] sharia law versus democracy” often standing-in for the whole.

Here I would suggest that one important task for scholars of religion is to identify the different social fields and “affective publics” in which talk about religions are taken up and interact so as to better understand the ways that dominant public representations of religion influence (and in some cases shape) the very terms of the debate.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth, and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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