Last week, my four-year-old son asked for a poppy. "To remember things," he explained. "But be careful," he added seriously, "or it will make you fall asleep until you're dead."
Emile was mashing up Remembrance Day with The Wizard of Oz, which had its own field of poppies that were deadly to those who might come across it rather than the ones of Flanders Field which marked the graves, row on row, of the already dead.
I bought E a poppy, a red one, and left it at that. He's too young still for me to explain what war is, but it made me realize how the rest of us aren't quite remembering things right, either.
There's been a big uproar this year over white poppies, intended symbols of peace which have been described by no less than the minister of veterans affairs, Julian Fantino, to be "an offensive attempt to politicize Remembrance Day."
But maybe we should be politicizing it more -- by which I mean we should also remember that it was politicians whose stubbornness, shortsightedness and sheer stupidity forced so many young people to make the sacrifice we remember today.
Remembrance Day may now be an occasion to pay tribute to veterans of all wars, but given how absurd most modern wars have been from Vietnam on, and how many genocides have not been stopped by soldiers, it remains indelibly linked to the world wars, the easily justifiable ones.
Remembrance Day marks Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, the end of The Great War. Now there are many terrible aspects of this war that led to the deaths of nine million soldiers over four years -- most viscerally the insanity of "human wave attacks" that sent so many over the top of their trenches to be mowed down by machine guns and the evilness of poison gas attacks that killed so many others while still huddled in those same, grave-like trenches.
But the worst is why the war happened in the first place. The great powers, empires all, had attempted to achieve a balance by signing a series of treaty alliances that legally locked their countries into protecting each other.
This political web meant that when a Bosnian Serb terrorist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, this single murder managed to start a world war. It provided a pretext for the Austro-Hungarian Empire to invade Serbia (which had agreed to "only" 8 of 10 demands). The Balkan nation was then defended by their Russian ally. Germany had to then defend Austria-Hungary, but began with attacking France (by way of Belgium) because of its alliance with Russia. This brought in the UK, which had an alliance with France, and thus also Canada. The United States, Italy and Japan soon jumped in, as well.
WWI was a bad war by all measures, but especially because there was no reason for it except bad politics. World War II, however, is often held up as the great moral war. As a Jew, and a human, I unequivocally agree that everything had to be done to stop Hitler.
(Though perhaps the allies could have at least slowed down the Holocaust by blowing up some railway lines even if they couldn't directly shut down the death camps. And also maybe not have turned away Jewish refugees on boats like the MS St. Louis that tried to flee before the war began.)
But let's also remember that WWII was a sequel in more than its roman numeral. Hitler did not rise to power in a vacuum but by taking advantage of the turmoil in Germany that occurred because of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War, from hyperinflation to national humiliation.
So no WWI might very well have meant no Nazis, no Holocaust and no WWII. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that immediately after hearing news of Germany's surrender while recovering in a military hospital, he "decided to go into politics." We should also remember that every war has unintended consequences.
And there's not really been a morally justifiable war since WWII -- not Vietnam or Iraq. Nobody went into Cambodia or Rwanda and it took forever for even a bombing campaign in Kosovo. And while the Taliban were inarguably horrifying, over a decade later Afghanistan has been a tragedy for everyone.
What got ignored in the white poppy uproar (alongside its origins in the 1930s) was an opportunity to discuss what Remembrance Day should be about. For most of its existence, it has been about paying tribute to the veterans who survived and those who sacrificed.
This doesn't glorify war, as some have claimed, but it does glorify soldiers -- and by doing so it provides cover for politicians. Nobody will say the young (mostly poor) Americans sent to fight and die in Iraq weren't brave -- war is a scary thing -- but they never should have been in harm's way, and they shouldn't have been putting Iraqis in harm's way, in the first place. President Bush sent them there on false pretenses. Talk about not supporting your soldiers.
The fact that a century after The War To End All Wars a military conflict can still be started so easily because of bad politics means that we've still not learned the right lessons from Remembrance Day.
So when my son is old enough for me to properly explain what the day is about, I will teach him that it's not just about remembering the soldiers who fought. It's also about remembering the politicians who sent them to fight, who started these wars for often no good reason, in hopes that we can one day prevent them from doing it in the future.
It's about remembering the day's slogan that best honours those who have died: "Never again."