In these days the world is remembering the tragic events of the First World War of 1914. In the United Kingdom, these days are remembered by the ubiquity of the “red poppy”, now represented as a public spectacle. The beautiful installation of red poppies at the Tower of London has become the most important touristic attraction of the city, and people sport the poppy as a badge of remembrance. It is a moving sight, and it makes me think of all the people who have suffered from war, and also those who sacrificed their lives because of an ideal.
Across the world, the First Word War is being remembered through books, art, films and plays, trying to make sense of this senseless conflict, a war that, as argued by the historian Diana Uribe– “may have had many causes, but not justification.”How did we get there? An explosive mixture of certain romanticism about war as the maker of history, the false belief of a “civilised” Europe advancing a project of colonisation, or the emergence of new nations and nationalisms that challenged the old system of alliances. The problem with this, the Great War, was that far from resolving the problems, it created the conditions for the Second World War and many of contemporary conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
But how can one account or think about the war? Historical archives and reports cannot represent the magnitude of the barbarie, the terror of the trench war, the global trauma of seeing the bravest, youngest, most handsome being cruelly killed in a senseless war. Art, on the other hand, may provide some avenues, and authors -specially those living the conflicts- found themselves at odds with their own “trauma” of being survivors needing to focus on their future in order to “live” and later trying to recount the horrors of the war.
But my question is what are we remembering? What are the lessons that we have (or not) learned from war? What are the alternatives?
This morning, for example, I woke up and asked my husband why the poppy is the flower for remembrance. Perhaps because he was still sleepy, or because the story has been told thousand times, he could not remember it. Perhaps it is also a sign of the times and the capacity of “forgetting” in a “society of spectacle” when one “event” replaces the other. A quick browse in Wikipedia tells me that the use of the poppy as the flower for remembering those fallen in the war is inspired by the poem: In Flanders Fields, written Lieteunant Colonel John McRae, a Canadian war physician who wrote it after the death of his friend in May, 2015. The poem goes as:
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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
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.
The poppy was adopted by Canada and other former British colonies like Australia and New Zealand as the symbol of those fallen in war. But such a simple gesture has been full of controversy. For some the use of the poppy aids in the glorification of war, for others is a patriotic symbol part of the national identity. For the Quakers, brave opposer of any type of violence, the poppy is not red but white, remarking with it the responsibility of choosing war over peace…Whatever the reason, the important thing here is to remember that it is not a symbol, but the lives of many young people killed and their families affected, and the big scars opened by the conflict, that still are in due of being healed.
Sitting here in my studio, I see some of the last cornflowers of the summer. They had a resurgence due to the strange good weather of the last week. I love the cornflower because it has a very particular hue of blue, and when I went to learn more about it, I found that it is a timely apparition for the remembrance day. Actually, the cornflower is also related to the red poppy, in symbolic terms, as it is the flower that commemorates the deaths of people in the war in France.
Based on the website “Flower Angels”: The blue cornflower has been the national flower of Estonia since 1968 and symbolizes daily bread to Estonians. It is also a politically charged flower as it stands as the symbol of the Estonian political party, People’s Union, the Finnish political party, National Coalition Party, and the Swedish political party, Liberal People’s Party, and has since the dawn of the 20th century been a symbol for social liberalism in the Scandinavian countries.
Today, when people are commemorating this date and the sacrifice of million of men and women, the cornflower stands as the symbol of renaissance and courage. Because remembering is all right when it helps us to understand the present. Remembering is not something in the past, a foggy past of red uniforms and Blackadder’s trench humor… it is all about what the war is telling us now and how we can avoid the waste of lives, talents and energy into conflicts that affect all of us.
This is because I am choosing the cornflower for this remembrance post, because we sometimes forget that the conflict was not exclusively British, but many other countries were involved, and that’s precisely what we need to remember. That all of us, humans, are responsible, that all of us suffer together, and what happens in a little town in Africa or Serbia or Colombia has important repercussions and implications for the rest of the world. But also, that the most darkest moments can be transformed in the daylight!