Posts Tagged ‘Remembrance Day’

Remembrance Day has always held profound significance for me, perhaps because I grew up on military bases among people of my parents’ generation who had experienced the horrors of World War Two.

I remember the sadness in my father’s eyes when he would mull over faded pictures of a friend who never came home. I remember chuckling about the lighter moments of POW life related by a friend’s father, but registering how he refused to talk about what it was like to be captured at Dieppe. I often think of another long lost friend, the son of a bomb disposal expert, who was forced to watch his psychologically damaged father commit suicide in a drunken stupor some 20 years after the war ended.

While I make a point of observing Remembrance Day, I shun the large military gatherings with the mournful buglers and the howitzers’ deafening “salutes.” To me, these kinds of observances seem calculated to ensure we will continue to view war as equal measures of valour and glory. They do not present war as what it is: legalized murder and clear evidence that, after millennia of evolution, we still lack the imagination it takes to live in peace.

Remembrance Day has its origins in the wake of World War One: the so-called “war to end war.” While WW1 has often been presented as a struggle between the forces of democracy and tyranny, it was, in reality, a clash of empires that yielded 40 million deaths and laid the basis for an even larger conflagration a generation later.

WW1 is often portrayed as when Canada “came of age.” Canada won the right to play with the big dogs by sacrificing (in round numbers) almost 67,000 of its sons and daughters. I’ve often wondered how our lives would have differed if this tremendous human potential had not been squandered, in Flanders and elsewhere.

Every Canadian who went through our school system is familiar with the poem by Colonel John McCrae, himself a casualty of “The Great War.”

In Flanders Fields
written in 1915 by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

For me, the poppy is an object of meditation on the tragedy of blood needlessly spilled over the past century, and on the folly of our latest military adventure in Afghanistan. Switching imperial masters, we now send our troops to kill and to die on behalf of the American Empire, the British Empire having passed its best-before date sometime around 1945.

The poppy is iconic; in a curious way, it unites us. You will find it on the lapels of peaceniks and militarists and everyone in between.

The poppy is sacred: it reminds us of young lives brutally snuffed.

The poppy is evil: it urges us to “take up our quarrel with the foe.”

The poppy is a major source of income in Afghanistan for corrupt government officials, warlords and insurgents alike.

I won’t be attending any Remembrance Day ceremonies this year, either. But I will be wearing my poppy, and I will remember.

Stretcher Bearers Bringing in Wounded at Vimy Ridge

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.

vimy pic1