Each year I struggle with the question of whether it is worth expressing my feelings concerning the increasingly fervent attitude which grips the nation surrounding Remembrance Day and my own increasing discomfort not only with the nature of the holiday itself but with the degree to which it has become socially unacceptable to voice any kind of opposition to this frighteningly ideologically driven event. And given the blind fervency with which people engage in this occasion, and the remarkable vitriol with which any kinds of objections are subjected, I have always been hesitant to say anything. My mother, who has never been a particularly political person, is American and lived through the McCarthy Era as well as the activism of the 1960s and the strong objections to the War in Indochina. But when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 she quickly realized that it was so socially frowned upon to voice objections to the War that she simply kept her mouth shut in social situations. The problem is, of course, that when one can no longer object to the actions taken by your government, regardless of whether it is regulated silence or silence brought about by social pressure, we have lost the very essence that our democracy is supposed to represent. And when any ideology becomes so ardent that it brooks no contradiction, that ideology no longer deserves to be defended.
In the post Vietnam era there was a relatively long period in which objections to foreign military enterprises and even the existence of a standing army itself were widely tolerated. This is because the terrible events in Indochina demonstrated fairly clearly to many people the real ideological nature of most international conflict, and people were not so willing to buy government spin concerning the supposed altruistic motivations of military exercises. After the US government had dropped more tonnage of ballistics onto the countries of Indochina than had been used in the entire Second World War, doubt concerning military altruism was easier to come by. This situation has gradually changed and with massive ideological efforts as well as small strategic endeavors such as “embedded Journalists,” doubt concerning the philanthropic motivations of Western military enterprises is on the wane. It appears that an increasing percentage of people, even on the left, are willing to buy into the idea that the West has altruistic goals concerning international relations and that Military efforts are a legitimate way to pursue these goals. Even as far back as the time of radicals such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft there was a growing objection to standing armies and a critical view to the real ideological and imperialistic motivations behind military efforts. And even though Mary Wollstonecraft was writing over two hundred years ago, in our current atmosphere her anti-militarist stance would seem outrageously radical and irreverent to many today. In fact militarism has now become so entrenched in our ideological worldview that any objection to the military is treated not only with derision but as though it were an act of treason.
However, I don’t think one must adopt the wholesale rejection of all military conflict nor must one believe that most wars engaged in by the West in the past century have been distinctly imperialistic, in order to have serious problems with the way in which Remembrance Day is currently be celebrated. Increasingly Remembrance Day is becoming an ethno-centric celebration of our own military prowess, rather than a reminder of the horrors of war and need to pursue peace as the real goal. Even if one were to believe that the wars of the past century have all essentially been efforts to “protect our freedoms,” an idea that frankly flies in the face of even the most casual reading of 20th century history, surely one must be concerned with our failure to properly honor those who have died in wars. Even if you believe that you owe the fallen soldiers a debt of freedom, isn’t our debt to them the assurance that we will doggedly pursue peace? But more importantly, given that the victims of wars are overwhelmingly civilians (sometimes at a rate of a hundred to one over soldiers) our Remembrance Day celebrations are in stark contrast to the realities of war. It is simply factually wrong and morally bankrupt to ignore the fact that even if we think the wars we have had have been justified overall, the West has engaged in terrible atrocities such as the fire-bombing of Dresden.
I personally believe that the vast majority of wars in which the Western nations have engaged (like most wars) are aimed at increasing the wealth and power of the economic elite. And I further believe that this position is defensible and demonstrable through rational discourse. However, one needn’t take this radical position to deeply object to the ideological nature that Remembrance Day ceremonies have taken on. Far from ‘remembering’ we have created a ceremony of mass-forgetting. We are forgetting the countless civilians that are dying in war (often at our own hands), we are forgetting the horror felt by the victims of rape and torture and the terrible scars that such events leave at a personal and cultural level, and most ironically we are forgetting the way in which the soldiers are themselves victims of an economic elite who need cannon fodder in their efforts to secure global markets and geo-political power.
Furthermore, I will not apologize for a position that is soundly defensible and I relish in my historical company.