As I have grown older, I’ve become increasingly ambivalent about Remembrance Day. That is not to say I take issue with setting aside a day to remember and contemplate those who risked everything in the name of what they thought was right. Quite the contrary: we should take more than fifteen minutes every year to engage in the sort of remembrance and contemplation that Remembrance Day ostensibly exists for.
But Remembrance Day as it is observed today has little to do with such contemplation. There is no room for questions about whether what our progenitors fought and died for was indeed right and just—that is now plainly assumed. And so Remembrance Day has become nothing more than a time for uttering platitudes soaked in ardent nationalism and blind veneration of military force.
I witnessed one of these unabashed displays in Kingston last week (although ceremonies similar in tone and substance took place nationwide). The Master of Ceremonies was an elderly gentleman with a gruff and guttural voice, and a central part of his program was his loose recitation of a poem often attributed to Charles M. Province. That poem extols the primacy of the soldier thusly: “It is the soldier, not the reporter, that has given us freedom of the press; it is the soldier, not the poet, that has given us freedom of speech; it is the soldier, not the campus organizer, that has given us freedom to protest; it is the solider, not the lawyer, that has given us the right to a fair trial.” After this reading came that of the bishop, who admonished us to pray for the men who died so that we may live, and who died in the name of some sort of holy “truth and righteousness.” We were to pray for men who took life, and who in turn had theirs taken, all with God on their side.
I found this disappointing, but hardly surprising. Yet it was profoundly disquieting that these statements were put forth to a crowd that included several elementary schoolchildren. I couldn’t help but think that these children would grow up actually believing that all our freedoms were won at gunpoint; that the actions of journalists and poets and protesters and lawyers are deservedly secondary to the actions of soldiers; and that it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.
When the moment of silence came, my thoughts turned to the men, many of them younger than me, who served in the First World War. I thought of how they had been duped by their leaders, tricked into going off to fight for freedom only to be slaughtered in the mud of some foreign land. Few Canadians had the courage or the decency to warn these men that they were dying for nothing; those few that did find their honest voice were met with a swift and severe “patriotic” backlash. To question whether the war was just had risen to the level of heresy and slander—and I can scarcely imagine it being much different a century later.
Perhaps my discomfort is best summed up in the book Warrior Nation, by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. It is worth reading at length, but I think one of its major themes can be paraphrased thusly: When we make every soldier into a hero, we make all of their actions heroic, and the result is that we find ourselves unable to debate the merits both of past wars and of sending our armies into combat again.
Thinking back to the schoolchildren: we hope they will become tomorrow’s active participants in democracy. But by consistently telling them that freedom is always born out of violent conflict, and by giving them such a peremptorily one-sided picture of how war, nation, and freedom are intertwined, we do them a significant disservice. We make democratic participation more difficult and less likely for them. And in consistently feeding the same lines to adults, we essentially do the same, for we circumscribe the important discussions we ought to now be having.
I leave you with the ever-poignant words of Bob Dylan:
The First World War, boys,
It came and it went.
The reason for fighting,
I never did get.
But I learned to accept it,
Accept it with pride.
For you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.
But now we’ve got weapons,
Of chemical dust.
If fire them we’re forced to,
Then fire them we must.
One push of the button,
And a shot the world wide.
And you never ask questions when God’s on your side.
So now as I’m leaving,
I’m weary as hell.
The confusion I’m feeling,
Ain’t no tongue can tell.
The words fill my head,
and they fall to the floor:
That if God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war.