When I was 10 years old, I was part of a Remembrance Day ceremony that’s stuck with me since then. Remarkably, it was followed up almost 20 years later with another moment not too dissimilar that only solidified in my mind how, if you’re actually pausing the remember the war dead, you’ll avoid any and all Official Government Ceremonies to do with Remembrance Day.
First off, let’s get one thing straight: in no way, shape or form is this post an attempt to demean, disparage or downplay the personal sacrifices made by the world’s war veterans. There’s nothing glorious about war: it’s a brutal, serious, terrible thing. True horrors that 99 per cent of us will never face or understand happen in war. It’s not something any one, living or dead, generally wants to be reminded of.
There’s a good reason why many of our grandfathers, great uncles and their kin never talked at length about their war experiences: try explaining to family members what it was like to see your friends, brothers-in-arms, being blown apart by heavy machine gun fire, or watching them, dying of thirst, accidently gulp down a tub of poison and die right in front of you, or watching a man’s leg get amputated due to gangrene.
War is a serious business. And that’s why we should tell our corporations (and sycophantic governments) to stop turning these events as tie-ins to rationalize current military policies and push product. It’s sick, twisted and an insult to the memories of veterans everywhere.
When I was 10, there was a Remembrance Day ceremony at my public school that I still remember. There were the usual aspects of events like these: kids not paying attention, wreaths placed upon the stage, Flanders’ Fields Where Poppies Grow. Of course, the attention was paid largely to Canada’s war dead. I can recall no such moment of recognizing the thousands of soldiers from other nations. I certainly don’t recall empathy towards German soldiers in The Great War, many of whom were doing the exact same thing the Triple Alliance soldiers were doing – defending country.
Fast forward 20 years – the CBC brought on board a retired military commander as Peter Mansbridge’s co-host of the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa. While I can’t recall his name, I do remember how he made me feel – sickened.
It was bad enough this military man was waxing poetic on the amazing nature of the dead soldiers and their achievements. While I can’t speak for them, it seems like a pretty safe bet most of them would probably hate the thought of being glorified in death for things anyone in their position would have done. More pointedly though, was the military man’s inability to distinguish between the personal sacrifices made by soldiers across the decades and the motivations for actually entering war. To him, every conflict was the same.
This became the bulwark for my frustration. For years now, Canadians have been told the standard line in Remembrance Day ceremonies: we must honour our war dead for the personal sacrifices they made for us. True. We – the people – should. But governments and corporations shouldn’t be leading the way. They’re the last kinds of institutions we need telling us what sacrifice is.
On the corporate side, we have the shameless pandering companies like Tim Hortons do when it comes to associating their brand with Remembrance Day. It’s a not-too-remarkable coincidence that the core market for Tim Hortons products – seniors – also happens to be the demographic most directly affected by war in our recent history. The corporate convergence of coffee, donuts and poppies might seem like a nice gesture for seniors. That is, of course, if you want to believe their motivations are innocent, and a corporation’s motives are always more about profit than being sympathetic. It’s playing off seniors’ genuine, hard-hearted feelings about war and turning it into an easy sell.
Bell did this exact same parlor trick a few years back when a young man called his grandfather on Juno Beach in a commercial pushing the company’s brand with keywords like “sacrifice.”
It’s enough to make you gag and wretch. What do these companies know about war? Other than the fact corporations have, throughout the past 120 years, been actively involved in making profits off the deaths of millions of people during war? If you don’t know the story of IBM’s strongly intimated involvement in the computerizing of the Holocaust, you should. If you don’t the story of Coca-Cola inventing Fanta Orange for Germans to drink to keep profits rolling in World War II, you should. If you don’t know of the mass war profiteering of Halliburton, Kellogg-Brown and Williamson and Blackwater in Iraq, you should.
Governments, of course, do the exact same thing, but in a more insidious way: the subtler inferences governments (especially the Harper government) make to justify unthinking, blind acceptance of war.
Case in point: Afghanistan.
While here in Canada, we all rest comfortably in the notion Canada’s at war in Afghanistan for the right reasons. Thing is, we don’t know what those reasons really are. Protecting Afghanis? Destroying the uneducated, narrow-minded hillbillies known as the Taliban? Defending oil interests? War on Terrorism?
More pointedly comes the issue of Official Government Ceremonies here in Canada. War ceremonies here take on a distinctly nationalistic flavour that likes of which help promote blind obedience to military policies of today. After all, in the logic of an Official Government Ceremony on Remembrance Day, if you’re against a war, you’re against the soldiers too. You’re not giving someone a proper remembrance, as it were, if you criticize a government’s handling of a war no one has a clear reason why we’re fighting. That’s the logic of a Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony: there’s no room for dialogue, no reasons to question our government’s policies.
Of course, that’s not all. Instead of remembering all of our world’s veterans, we stubborningly cling to old, outdated historical alliances when referencing past wars here. There’s still a culture here in Canada of ignoring and demonizing the so-called bad guys during war. Did all the soldiers fighting for Germany in the Great War deserve this demonization? Why is it so hard for people, even 90 years later, to come to terms with how war made victims of everyone?
And finally, comes the Big One: defending the values we hold dear. This is true. Sometimes. But if we ever want to evolve in terms of international relations, we must take a greater honesty in terms of examining our past and casting a critical eye on Canada’s history and not turn every war into a life-or-death struggle for democracy. Some wars have been about defending the values of democracy and freedom. Some have not. But the point is moot – we’re talking about the veterans here, not the nations.
Far be it from me to call any of this political pandering – I may be cynical sometimes, but I’m not nihilistic. Still, it’s interesting, how our governments and corporations work on the issue of Remembrance Day. After all, the Canadian government has to be quite knowledgeable when it comes to what happens when a bunch of veterans get pissed off when someone dares question the Official History of Canadian War. Veterans and seniors are a very powerful voting bloc in Canada, after all.
The point of this polemic, though, comes back to what this day is all about: the soldiers.
I can recall, back in 2002, an article I wrote for Diatribe on war films and their evolution on screen. At the end, I wrote about how more contemporary war films are showing us what war is really about: fighting for each other and not for country. The concept of fighting for “freedom” or your country, especially in this day and age, seems like a foreign topic. While I can’t claim to know what it is like on the battlefield, nor do I want to, I do know what happens when people, united in a common bond (which isn’t always a country), are forced into a tense situation and have to unite together. It’s horrifying and galvanizing at the same time. When someone dies in that group, I can only imagine a piece of that group dies too.
That’s what this day should be about, not corporations pushing product or governments using the day as a political tool. It’s about the soldiers from across the world, not just Canada. It’s about the idea you’re doing something that involves organized mass killing of people and what that does to a person’s psyche. It’s about understanding the true nature of war – it’s not glorious, it’s not sane or even Saving Private Ryan. And it’s certainly not about values or nations in every case.
At the end of the day, I can’t imagine soldiers wanting glory above simple recognition. They’d just want you to remember what they did. No pomp. No circumstance.
Just remember them and them alone.