This op-ed by Parkland Institute director Trevor Harrison appeared in the Edmonton Journal on November 11, 2018.
As we near the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we might take time to ask: What is it that we remember on Remembrance Day?
The typical Remembrance Day ceremony takes place around a cenotaph and includes state officials (politicians and military officers), ecumenical religious figures, and often the mother, father, or spouse of a lost soldier; sometimes, too, a soldier scarred in conflict, though the injury must be obvious: hidden injuries are insufficiently illustrative for the occasion. Beyond them are people — regular folk, really — who come with their own personal memories.
There are speeches. Words like “freedom” and “democracy” float untethered above the throng. Young cadets, in full dress, march past carrying the nation’s flag. The Canadian national anthem is sung, hats doffed; a bugle plays the Last Post.
Cannons, too, are fired, an apt symbol; for, side by side with the tone of solemn remembrance lies often a subtle celebration of war. We are repeatedly enjoined to remember that the soldiers died bravely for our country, somewhat less today for king, queen, or God.
But a careful parsing of the symbolism tells us soldiers everywhere die in the name of the modern state. For, as the late historian Charles Tilly informed us, the modern state arose out of war; hence the state’s representatives: the flag, the military officers, and, of course, the politicians.
What we are not asked to remember are how many soldiers prior to death came to question the purpose of whatever war they were fighting. As the First World War wore on, many soldiers came to view the war as a costly sham, a lie, from which their only escape was in a body bag or through an injury — sometimes self-inflicted — so as to be saved from the front.
What we are not asked to remember is the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by soldiers — or vicariously experienced by loved ones upon their return. In the First World War, soldiers were said to be merely shell-shocked and, if refusing to go back into the fray, were accused of being shirkers and cowards. They were sometimes executed for disobeying orders. While we understand the long-term psychological impacts of war somewhat better today, we haven’t taken the only certain step to end wartime PTSD: to stop sending young men and women into senseless wars.
What we are not asked to remember, or even think about, are the real causes of that — or, indeed, any — war. The First World War, in particular, was a profoundly stupid war fought between imperial states, arguing over the acquisition of colonies, and between blood-related royals of questionable intellect and morals sprinkled across Europe; a war that set in motion events that would see its sequel 21 years later.
In Canada, we are not asked to remember that our leaders in 1914, acted as servile colonials of Britain, eager for war, while francophone Quebecers, farmers, and unionists argued against participating in the madness. The latters’ attempts failed, nearly setting off a constitutional crisis.
We are not asked to remember either, though we should, the enormous number of civilians — men, women, and children — killed in war. Nearly 10 million military personnel and the same number of civilians died in the First World War, another 21 million wounded in total; roughly 26 million military personnel and 31 million civilians died in the Second World War, with perhaps another 28 million wounded in total. Another 1.4 million died in Vietnam and perhaps 600,000 during the recent Iraq War and its aftermath. In both cases, roughly half of those who died were civilians.
Finally, we are not asked to remember the enormous profits made by the manufacturers of military weapons and their financiers — or, to our shame, our own cozy investments in pension funds; all of whose returns rely on the use of said weaponry, for unless it is used — somewhere — the unvirtuous cycle of supply and demand would dry up, and profits end.
If we genuinely wish to see an end to war, this Remembrance Day would be a good occasion to remember those things that traditional ceremonies collude in making us forget.