Every Nov. 11, I get a little weepy.The knowledge that behind the solemn ceremonies and the 21-gun salutes from capitals across the country lie millions of premature deaths and incalculable suffering is overwhelming.
This weekend, the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France has been re-opened and our political and military leaders are mouthing platitudes about sacrifice, democracy, and nation-building. 3,598 Canadians were killed and 7,104 wounded in the battle of Vimy Ridge, and so it is only fitting that we lay to rest some of the bullshit that has been flowing, ostensibly in their memory.
Much is made of the valour and sacrifice of the Canadians at Vimy. Valour means courage under fire and to be sure, our ancestors were brave. One account of the battle says the artillery barrage was so loud it could be heard in southern England, 100 miles away. Imagine the fear this din would have inspired on all sides; imagine being able to stand up and walk, much less fight, in this hellish environment.
And they were sacrificed – gutted on the altar of imperial ambition. Four empires: the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian disintegrated, and the Allies divided up the spoils. We continue to reap that whirlwind in the Middle East, among other places.
Democracy? I suppose it’s a relative term, even today. Prior to WW1 the Germans had an emperor and a parliament; we had a king and a parliament. Women were not allowed to vote in either country. Citizens and combatants on both sides were force-fed a stew of lies about their evil adversaries, but looking back over 90 years, it is difficult to see WW1 as a struggle for democracy.
Nation building? In Canada, the battle of Vimy Ridge is portrayed as key breakthrough in the evolution of Canada from a British colony to an independent state. Under British command, Canadians planned, led, provided most of the Allied fighters at Vimy and prevailed. Their blood, we are told, helped us win a seat at the Versailles peace negotiations, which led to our ever growing autonomy on the world stage (which presumably led us to our present status as a vassal of the American Empire — but I digress).
The folks who depend on a compliant source of cannon fodder for current and future wars want us to believe that the battle of Vimy Ridge was a GOOD THING. They want us to believe that Canada “came of age” in the Great War. WW1 is presented as an essential rite of passage, sanctified by our emerging nationhood, almost an historical inevitability if we were ever to find our place in the world. Today’s warmongers are even trying to bask in the reflected glow of long ago bombardments as they direct our young people to slaughter in Afghanistan. (National Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor put it this way: “And much like the Battle at Vimy Ridge, our involvement in Afghanistan is, in many ways, helping to define us as a nation today. A nation that stands up for what we believe in.”)
But consider this: of the 620,000 Canadians who fought in the Great War, 67,000 were killed and 241,000 were wounded. Imagine what a country we might have built if these young men had remained at home, with their families, in their communities.
Friends of mine have an old photo hanging in their dining room of a large gathering of Winnipeggers, taken sometime in the 1920s. One is struck by the conspicuous absence of young men.
Imagine the waste.