Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the day the guns fell silent and the first world war finally came to an end. I’ve spent some time reflecting on this over the past week or so, and figured given the gravity and importance of this event, it would be appropriate to take a break from your regularly scheduled programming about painting tiny dollies and get serious for a moment, and share in some of those reflections.
What does it mean to remember?
There are, of course, plenty of officially sanctioned Remembrance Day ceremonies that Canadians attend or watch on television in great numbers. Poppies start appearing on jackets at the start of November, and a great number of us take part in rituals such as the moment of silence. But, how many of us go deeper and truly reflect on the horrors of war?
Now, this is something that I’m basing on little more than fuzzy childhood memories so I could be way off base, but I feel like remembrance has changed over the years. Growing up, I felt that Remembrance Day programming in the schools really emphasized the horrors of war, and why it should be avoided. I remember watching films and presentations on the horrors of World War I, on the after-effects of war, and on the campaign to ban land mines and cluster bombs which go on killing long after the war is over. The prevailing attitude was one of “never again” – that war was such a tragedy that it should never be entered into without much consideration.
Somewhere along the line, though, I feel like things changed. In the post-9/11 days, when Canadian troops were in Afghanistan and the US invaded Iraq, yellow ribbons and “Support the Troops” signs began appearing everywhere. This was tied to a culture of militarism; by loudly bleating clichés like “Support the Troops,” politicians could avoid hard questions about the war they had built on a foundation of lies. Those who opposed the war were told to shut up and be respectful of those fighting for our freedoms.
Sadly, I think that between the passing of most of the veterans from the wars of the first half of the century and the uptick in militarism as a part of the “war on terror,” we may have lost focus on what it really means to remember.
What were we fighting for?
This is a difficult question to ask. When we are all honouring what is seen as a noble sacrifice, questioning why all those young men had to die can be difficult. We don’t want to ask these questions because we are afraid of what the answer may be.
Make no mistake, World War I was little more than a pointless slaughter, made possible by feckless politicians who would rather send millions of young men to their deaths in the hell of the trenches than do the honorable thing and sort out their differences themselves. This bloodbath dragged on for four long years, only finally being ended when the German people, with their army on the ropes and suffering from the effects of a four year long naval blockade, had enough. Sailors in the North Sea fleet chose to mutiny rather than be sacrificed to the pride of their Admirals, and the people of Germany rose up against war and against the monarchy, and within two weeks the war was ended. The Russian workers and peasants had, of course, taken matters into their own hands a year earlier, and the French military had their fair share of mutinies as well, not to mention the Christmas Truce of 1914 when soldiers on both sides took a day off from killing each other.
Of course, we don’t learn about those little details like how it was mass desertion among the soldiers and sailors and revolution among the working classes that finally ended the war. The true tragedy is that the entire war was avoidable in the first place. However, once it got going, politicians were able to whip up their populations into a nationalist frenzy, dooming them to four long years of bloodshed and hardship.
And, let us critically examine our national mythology surrounding Vimy Ridge. With the centenary of the battle last year, there was a lot of discussion about how that was the moment that Canada truly came of age. First, I’m not sure what exactly changed that made Canada a real country just because thousands of our boys died and thousands of their boys died fighting over a piece of land in France. Secondly, what does it say about us that we see our coming of age as a nation as not the passing a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or developing a compassionate welfare state, or acts of reconciliation with our long-suffering indigenous population, or a history of welcoming refugees – things that actually did have or would have a concrete and positive effect on our freedoms – but a bunch of Canadians and Germans killing each other?
Even World War II, which is about as clear-cut of a case of good guys versus bad guys as there is, has some complicated history around it. It was only a few months prior to the war that Canada turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees, with one high-level government official remarking that “none is too many” when asked how many Canada should take in. Most were sent back to continental Europe, where 254 of them would be killed in the Holocaust. Those who fought against fascism in Spain were considered “politically unreliable” and “premature anti-fascists” by the Canadian government, many of whom ended up harassed by the RCMP and prohibited from serving during WW2. To this day, they are conspicuously absent from any sanctioned remembrance ceremonies. Finally, the bad guys were given a lot of support by the business community and the media in the run-up to the second world war, as a certain section of the ruling class felt that fascism was a much preferred alternative to socialism which could threaten their profits.
And let us not forget how the veterans themselves were treated when they returned home. Many soldiers were left with physical and mental scars that left them unable to find work or carry on with a normal life. Others would return to poverty and unemployment, as we had an economic system that threw them to the curb as soon as they were no longer needed in the trenches.
All of this meant that, seemingly paradoxically, a lot of the anti-war sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s came from veterans who were scarred by their experiences in the trenches. They knew firsthand the horrors of war and were determined to make sure it didn’t happen again. People like the late Harry Patch, the last British survivor of WWI, and WW2 RAF airman Harry Leslie Smith have continued to speak out against war and militarism past the age of 90.
What does it mean today?
As we move into 2018, I see the world creeping once more into fascism. I don’t use that word lightly, but we have an ascendant far right playing on people’s fears to stir up hatred and reshape politics in an ugly manner. We see politicians promoting racist, anti-immigrant agendas and winning elections. We see far right figures coming out into the open and building bases of support. And we see anti-semitism, previously confined to dark corners of the internet, coming back into the open. Just a couple weeks ago, a 97 year old Holocaust survivor, among 10 others, was gunned down at a synagogue just because they were Jewish and because their synagogue supported immigrants and refugees. Just think about that for a moment and how absolutely horrible and twisted that is.
We also have a political and business elite all too happy to acquiesce to far-right demagogues – witness the recent CBC piece on how the election of a more or less fascist government in Brazil will positively affect the business environment for Canadian mining companies, and compare that to the support for Hitler and Mussolini by the newspapers and the business class in the 1930s.
If we truly want to remember those who fell fighting the fascist powers in World War II, let us commit to quenching these movements based on fear and hatred before we end up face to face with the horrific brutality of fascism and war.
I’m not a pacifist, but history has shown us that the business and political elite of every country is all too willing to throw away the lives of the rest of us. As we reflect on war and sacrifice and honour our veterans, we also must reflect on and understand the historical context behind the wars that produce veterans and war dead in the first place. If we fail to do so, if we fail to understand the true history of these wars, if we fail to question cultures of militarism, and if we fail to stop a second coming of fascism, then we might as well forget.