Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Problems with Remembrance Day. . . . .

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. 


Anonymous said...

K, I am wearing a white poppy and when people ask me why white instead of red I respond: November 11 - Lest we forget all the victims of war, and that war is not and has never been the answer. People genuinely feel uncomfortable with my answer. We must never forget and we must stop repeating the same mistakes and atrocities. Thank you for this post


Anonymous said...

Interesting blog, I have always felt that remembrance day was a day to remember the suffering and sacrifice and seems to me to highlight the hideousness and the futility of ww1 in particular. It also seems very sympathetic to the soldiers and very critical of the political and military powers at the time. Here at least it does not seem to inspire a militaristic fervour and us cynical brits don't really buy the "for our freedom" stuff (I wish that there had been more cynics at the time). I would hate to see remembrance day hijacked by those who glorify war.

Anonymous said...

Respectfully, I think you've got a case of over-thinking an issue. Big time.

Remembrance Day affords us the opportunity to be as against or as for armed conflict as we wish, a freedom we are indeed blessed to enjoy as Canadians.

I hope you can at least agree with this assertion. If not, we live in radically incompatible realities.

Above all, it's a solemn occasion, simply, to remember combatants and civilians killed in the savagery of war. It's also a chance to chip in a few bucks to help fund the healthcare of people who sustained horrendous physical and psychological wounds by buying a poppy.

Ethno-centric? Don't even know how to respond to that. It's simply false.

People of all backgrounds stand in solidarity on November 11th.

I respectfully submit if you can't feel that basic sense of mourning and unity without an existentialist philosophical crisis, you've got problems that go beyond reflecting about a holiday of reflection and are out of touch with 95% of Canadians.

Wear a poppy and remember, whether you support war or not.

kirbycairo said...

Dear Phil - Thanks for your comment. In my experience, even though if you give English a uniform and a marching band they will follow you anywhere, and their history of supporting wars has been shameful and startling - there is still a much more widely felt consciousness of the 'political' implications of these kinds of things from the early days of the terrible Gordon Riots, to the great opposition to WWI led by the brilliant Bertram Russell. Canada is much closer to the US in this regard, and most Canadians fail to understand the political implications of patriotism (even soft patriotism).

Anonymous said...

Your link was sent to me today. Certainly you are welcome to expressing your thought and it is your right to do so. I hope you are as generous to others who may disagree, myself included. For the record, I am not a supporter of war. I am a supporter though of the men and women who perished in war. Indeed, I attend a memorial service every year with that thought. I have taught my children to do the same. We are there for the dismal outcome to those who can no longer speak for themselves. As I say, for them. Not for the governments who order such things. Of course books could be written about this that would stretch over great distances. Mine is a simplistic response to your feelings. To Anonymous at 7:28 - well said my friend.

RobinHood70 said...

I just want to thank you for saying what I feel with so much more eloquence than I ever could. Much too much, this day has become about celebrating our victory/freedom and mourning our losses rather than mourning the dead and suffering on all sides of the various wars, and the conditions that brought about the wars in the first place.

I've lost three friends so far today from expressing this view. I can only hope that the fact that I feel so strongly will encourage them and others to reevaluate what today is really about.

kirbycairo said...

Dear RobinHood,
We have entered a time when the establishment has manufactured so much ideology around this issue that we have nearly lost the very freedom that the supporters claim the wars enshrined. Historically speaking, nearly all wars have been orchestrated for the sake of increasing the wealth and power of the elite, and they sell it to people in the name of patriotism. And even though his has been going on forever, the people still buy the spin. Dr. Johnson said that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" but he should have said that it is the first and last refuge. It is, I suppose, a cyclical process because when I was young and the war in IndoChina was still fresh in people's minds, they looked askance at such displays of patriotism because the political and monetary interests of the elite had been laid bare. Since then the establishment has managed to reinstate blind patriotism to the point that people will actually ostracize you if you question it. But the tide will turn again at some point.

karen said...

This is not the easiest stand to take, but there are many of us who both stand with the dead and survivors of war (civilian and military) and reject the solemn "celebrations" that are used yearly to persuade us we are always pure in our choices to use might over our other options.

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Stumbled across this through googling "problems with remembrance day" as I have been struggling to articulate my issues with it properly. You did it with far more insight and eloquence than I could wish to have but in short, totally hit the nutshell on the head.

You cannot argue with your blog unless you're ignorant and/or being an ignorer. Those traits I believe are more prevalent with people the more patriotic they are or become.

Patriotism is instilled by governments and cooperation's that benefit from war (Government generally), funny that!

Brilliant, first class!! James

Sandy said...

Thank you for your post. I agree and feel the same- about my discomfort over remembrance day and also how it is socially unacceptable to voice these sentiments. Thank you for doing so.

Jen said...

As another commenter posted, I found this entry by searching for 'problems with Remembrance Day'. Again to repeat what they said, thank you for eloquently putting together the sentiments that I've always felt bubbling beneath the surface but have been poorly equipped to express. Here's to hoping that the tides again definitely will turn.

Additionally, I wanted to point out the seeming lack of desire of some to connect the dots and see the disgrace that is the fact that those in power trundle out veterans for show on this day, yet it is the poppy fund that is used to scrounge for funds to support the very people that the government so loudly purports to 'honour.' For shame.

Anonymous said...

I'll join the small crowd that has come to this place after googling "discomfort with Remembrance Day." My father was a WWII vet and spent 99% of his service as a prisoner of war in a brutal Japanese labour camp. He was also uncomfortable with the sugar-coating that is so evident on Remembrance Day and he refused to take part. His comment: In my experience of war, there were no heros. We were miserable, sick, starving and dressed in rags, not uniforms. When he returned home from war, both physically and emotionally scarred, he was denied compensation because he had only been a member of the reserves. Is this how a country pays respect? I really like the first comment in this thread. I believe I will follow suit and find my own way to commemorate the victims of war on Remembrance Day. Thank you for your thoughtful post.