Four years ago today I wrote a blogpost expressing my concerns with the modern manifestation of Remembrance Day. Even as recently as this week I received a positive comment on that post. I genuinely believe that more people would express concerns about Remembrance Day but they fear the reaction. This is unfortunate. When people in what is supposed to be a democratic society are hesitant to express rational and meaningful concerns about something, particularly about the dangers of nationalism, I get concerned. But since almost no one else is willing to talk about it, I will.
I grew up partly in Los Angeles California during the height of the War in Vietnam. It was a turbulent time and even as a child I had a sense of the turbulence, the violence, and the ideological rifts that were tearing apart the nation and the world. Though my parents weren’t activists, they were still vehemently against the war in Indo-China and the inhuman way violence that was being committed there. Though my maternal grandfather was a retired Master Sergeant in the USAF there was little sympathy for the war even in my grandparents’ household.
However, strangely enough what I knew about war and soldiers I was mostly learning from someone who was not in my family. Mr. Campbell was an old man who ran a little five and dime store in my neighborhood in Santa Monica. He as a grizzled, yet charming, old guy who never failed to be cheerful towards me when I came into his crowded little shop despite the obviously difficult life that he led. Mr. Campbell had fought in WWI and had been left nearly blind by gas. “The Germans did everything they could to kill me,” he would say will a crooked smile, “but I am still here.” Despite his injuries, he wasn’t bitter about the war and he didn’t seem to hold it against the Germans as many seemed to do. He even pointed out to me more than once that he had married a German woman despite the war. She had died years ago but whenever he spoke of her moisture came into his eyes and even as a kid I understood the unspoken sadness that overcame him.
I have a few vivid memories of Mr. Campbell, one of which occurred on Veteran’s Day, the US name for Remembrance Day. It must have been in 1973 because I remember it was a Sunday and I walked by Mr. Campbell’s shop and was surprised to see it open on Sunday. I went into the store and there was Mr. Campbell sitting as usual on a tall stool behind the counter reading one of those large print books for people who have severely impaired eyesight I knew it was Veteran’s Day because I had seen some kind of military celebration in Douglas Park on Wilshire Boulevard. I greeted Mr. Campbell and he smiled, as he always did, when he heard my voice. I asked him why he was open on a Sunday, and then mentioned that it was Veteran’s Day.
That was the first and only time that I saw Mr. Campbell look angry, and he spoke to me at length in a way that even now, forty years later, I still recall.
“I have never celebrated Veteran’s Day,” Mr. Campbell told me. “When I was gassed no one cared and they kicked me out of the army with almost nothing. They pinned a Purple Heart on my chest and then kicked me to the curb. And since then I have watched Veteran’s day celebrations with nothing but contempt. They act like they want people to remember but they don’t care. They just use the whole thing as a way to promote another war. They will always have another war for young kids to fight and it is all for making money for some jerk who sells weapons and bombs and acts like it is all noble. But it isn’t, it is just bull.”
I don’t know exactly why I remember these events but they stuck in my head. Perhaps it is because as Mr. Campbell told me these things the war in Vietnam still raged and young Americans were still coming home in boxes. And over the years I came to realize through my youthful friendship with Mr. Campbell that if Remembrance Day is to mean anything it should be a painful reminder that wars are an outward manifestation of our worst failures as a race, and a reminder of the terrible price that people pay for those failures. Meanwhile, blindly pro-war leaders like our own Prime Minister blatantly use Remembrance Day as a way of promoting patriotism and whipping up the very emotions that lead to these terrible human failures.
Perhaps the saddest part of all of this for my life is that Vietnam obviously failed to teach us is that our wars are almost always a machine for making wealth. But the skepticism that Vietnam brought to people didn’t last long and by the 1990s it was all but gone and once again Western Governments seem to be able to commit their nation’s to war with a minimum of critical thought on the part of the media or the people. One war comes on the tail of another and the only thing they have in common is that regular people suffer and the rich make billions of dollars from them.
Here in Canada one war stopped and the next one quickly began. Meanwhile, the many millions that the Government spent celebrating the War of 1812 (a war that was fought before we were even a Country), was spent while they are busy cutting services for the very veterans that they are supposed to be celebrating. It is perhaps the greatest act of hypocrisy from a government that has made a career of hypocrisy.
So I chose to remember Mr. Campbell and the terrible record of human failure that allow our leaders to take us into one war after another. And when people talk incessantly about the “fight for freedom,” I remember that it is not foreign countries that have been a threat to our freedoms. Just like today, the greatest threat to our freedoms are our own governments and the corporation who support them. Every freedom we enjoy from voters rights to gay marriage has been wrenched out of our governments by committed democratic and unions activists.
So while our leaders are ‘leading’ us once again into another ridiculous war remember that such violence almost always bespeaks a basic human failure and that the real threat to your freedoms are the ones from your own leaders whose chest thumping and drum beating is just another diversion from their real intent.