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A poem, a field of flags recall a high price paid.

Byline: Chris Sinacola

COLUMN: Sina-cism

The lawn of the Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society of Westboro's church on West Main Street is covered with thousands of flags this week, a tribute to the American servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq during the past six years.

Inevitably, the Field of Flags brings to mind "In Flanders Fields," the brief but ever-popular poem by Canadian doctor and artillery soldier John McCrae, who served with Allied forces in France during World War I.

Across the nation this coming week, McCrae's familiar words will be recited countless times, by schoolchildren with no experience of war, by veterans with all too much experience of it, and by many who have lost loved ones, whether in conflicts that have long been part of our history books or in the wars that fill today's front pages:

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row..."

Since its publication in Punch in December 1915, the popularity of McCrae's 15-line poem has never waned. It is easy to see why. "In Flanders Fields" may not be great poetry in the eyes of literary critics, but its combination of stark battlefield imagery and the poignant plea of the fallen to the living has resonated with generations of soldiers and civilians:

"Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw the torch ..."

It is just here, at the start of the third stanza, that the poem becomes two poems, turning from the imagery of birds singing above the din of battle to become, in fact, an exhortation to continue that battle, to press on to victory.

For Paul Fussell, a retired English professor, literary critic and author of "The Great War and Modern Memory," it is

here that the poem becomes propaganda.

Fussell was a 19-year-old infantryman when he arrived on the front lines in France in November 1944, a generation after McCrae. Embittered and disillusioned by his war experience, Fussell wrote his 1975 book to explore how the participants in World War I, along with their families and descendants, came to terms with what was, at the time, unparalleled ferocity and suffering.

Fussell writes of McCrae's poem: "We finally see - and with a shock - what the last six lines really are: they are a propaganda argument - words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far - against a negotiated peace."

All available evidence, however, suggests that McCrae did not intend his poem as anything but a poem, never mind propaganda. His letters home, his service record, and the recollections of fellow soldiers and friends paint a portrait of a dedicated, loyal, determined man who struggled with normal human fears and came to believe, quite simply, that it would be morally and politically unforgivable to abandon the Allied cause.

McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" on May 3, 1915, a day after the death of a friend and former student. He might have written it anytime during the war. Months earlier, the Allies had only barely managed to halt the German drive on Paris. All along the Western Front, trench warfare, with its slaughter from bullets and disease, was taking hold. By year's end, the Allies would suffer 180,000 casualties in an unsuccessful effort to capture the Gallipoli peninsula from the Turks.

It seems that a negotiated peace was the last thing on McCrae's mind in 1915 or anytime before his death from pneumonia and meningitis in January 1918. A comrade, Cyril Allinson, told McCrae's biographer that the doctor-poet's last words to him were: "Allinson, all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men."

John McCrae was not happy to be on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918, no more than Paul Fussell was to be in France in 1944 or America's fighting men and women are eager to be in Iraq or Afghanistan today. But the poem McCrae left behind reminds us that the hearts of our warriors were with one another and their nation when they fell. If a field of flags or a poem makes you angry, if you are stirred to enlistment or civil disobedience, so be it. There will be time enough later to debate the ways and means of war and to take your stand for one side or the other of a bill or debate or demonstration. On Memorial Day, the dead ask merely that we remember their cause, recognize their sacrifice and honor them by our presence.

Contact Chris Sinacola at
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 25, 2007
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