11 November 2013

Remember who? And for what?

Canada first observed Remembrance Day on November 11th, 1919, to  commemorate the armistice that had ended WWI one year earlier and to remember those in the military who had given their lives in the war.

The narrow focus on the military has become less legitimate—the majority of those who died in WWI were soldiers. In WWII, however, the great majority of the dead were civilians. Yet Remembrance Day still emphasizes the loss of soldiers. The red poppy should now, more than ever, symbolize also the civilian dead, the innocent victims of collateral damage, disease and starvation. Few, fortunately, have been Canadian but they nonetheless deserve a special place in our memories.

We might also commemorate the first victim of war—truth. We persist in perpetuating the lie that we owe our freedoms to the military. In fact Canadians' freedoms were won primarily by generations of diverse reformers who struggled to ensure that the lower classes had the same rights as the aristocrats and the wealthy, mostly by peaceful means but with occasional riot and revolution. Personally, I am grateful for their courage and sacrifice every day of the year, not only on one day.

Indeed, in which wars exactly have Canadians' freedoms been at stake? The Second World War? Maybe, but doubtful. Certainly not the First World War. On that occasion, we fought for the British Empire, defending the British and the French from imperial Germany while imperial Britain and imperial France occupied and exploited much of Africa and Asia. The freedom of Canadians was irrelevant.

So by all means, on November 11th let us remember the dead warriors but let us remember also the victims of warriors. Wear a poppy for all, but particularly for the innocent. And let us remember to be honest about our great follies.


  1. Bill, it's discouraging to explore how we project on our war dead attributes that most never had and causes for which they did not die.

    I read of this phenomenon in the context of confederate Civil War survivors whose descendants constructed an entirely alternative reality of their war. The politically acceptable narrative cast the South's war as a defence of states' rights, masking what those veterans had actually fought for. It angered those survivors for it undermined the entire legitimacy of their cause and this was done to them by their own side.

    We, took, pervert the narrative of our own dead and veterans by making their experience conform to our preferences, by imbuing them with an ersatz nobility that most never held.

  2. I'm curious, Mound. What did the Confederate vets say they were fighting for?

  3. Well, Bill, it was slavery. Not that many of them were wealthy enough to own slaves but there was apparently a common aspiration (the origins of the "American Dream"?) to some day be sufficiently prosperous to own a few. Lincoln promised, at that point, that he wouldn't abolish slavery. They didn't believe him.