On Thursday November11th we celebrate Veterans’ Day. Originally this was known as Armistice Day, commemorating the treaty between the Allies of World War I and Germany for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front. The treaty took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The date was declared a national holiday by many of the allied nations to commemorate the members of the armed forces who were killed during World War I. After World War II the name of the holiday was changed in the U.S. to Veterans’ Day and to Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth of Nations. Armistice day remains an official holiday in France and Belgium.
In many parts of the world people observe two minutes of silence at 11am on November 11th in remembrance of the 20 million people who died in World War I—the so called “war to end all wars.” The observance of Remembrance Day often includes a reading of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, written by Canadian medical officer John McRae in 1915 after the death of a friend:
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.
Because of this poem Remembrance Day has come to be called Poppy Day in many Commonwealth Nations. Red poppies are symbolic of the blood shed by all the casualties of war. Some people have taken to wearing white poppies on Remembrance Day to symbolize the hope for peaceful resolutions of conflict in the future.
World War I was obviously not “the war to end all wars.” Nor was World War II or all the wars that have been fought since. In a world where war has been the norm, it continues to be the norm. World War III would definitely be the “war to end all wars” because it would most likely obliterate all life on the planet. Perhaps before we reach this point we can begin to learn to resolve conflict in non-violent ways.
The first great ethical principle of Ashtanga Yoga is ahimsa—not harming. In yoga sutra II-35 Patanjali says, “ahimsa pratisthayam tat samnidhau vaira tyagah”—in the presence of one who is established in non-violence, all enmity is abandoned. This is simply the law of Karma in action. If we want a peaceful world we need lots of people practicing ahimsa. Mahatma Gandhi, the great 20th Century practitioner of ahimsa once said, “If we practice the philosophy of an eye for an eye, soon the whole world will be blind.”
One of my current heroes in the realm of finding peaceful solutions to conflict is the American humanitarian Greg Mortensen, subject of the book Three Cups of Tea and author of the book Stones into Schools. Greg was a mountain climber who became lost in a descent and ended up in a remote and very poor Pakistani village, suffering from exposure, dehydration, and malnutrition. A Pakistani family took him in, treated him with great kindness, and nursed him back to health. When Greg recovered he wanted to do something to express his gratitude to the villagers. The village headman led him up a trail to a small plateau where children were scratching out letters with sticks in the dirt. The headman explained that this was their school. At that moment Greg vowed that he would build a school for the village.
After many trials and tribulations, Greg succeeded in building the school. It was the first of more than 130 schools he would build in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the next 16 years. Greg believes that the best way to peace is through education. He has been remarkably successful at establishing friendships with the local villagers. It has been a demonstration of ahimsa in action. Three Cups of Tea has become mandatory reading for American military officers in Afghanistan. This gives me some hope for a peaceful resolution to this conflict.
As for me, I’ll be wearing a white poppy on Thursday.