November 12, 2010

Remembrance Day – Remembering who, and what?

by Francis Dupuis-Déri
Le Devoir (Montreal)
Translated by S. Smith

November 11 is the anniversary of the armistice marking the end of the First World War, although the Canadian Army in fact continued fighting until 1919, deploying units in Siberia, with many conscripts from Montréal and Quebec City, in an attempt to thwart the Bolshevik advance. This day also marks the peak of the campaign around the red poppy, the felt and plastic symbol produced and sold by the Royal Canadian Legion but first adopted in 1920 in the United States by the American Legion in reference to the poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian soldier John McCrae.

Written in the wake of the battle of Ypres, Belgium in May 1915, this poem reads as a call to arms directed to the youth by the 6,000 Canadian soldiers who were massacred in a few days: “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.” It is explicitly militarist, as is the poppy, whose promoters consider it an expression of recognition of “all who have fallen”, to “all who still serve, and all who have come home again,” to quote the Toronto Star editorial of November 8, which calls on us to “honour the 152 who have died in Afghanistan and the tens of thousands who fell in other wars.”

For the Canadian War Museum, in Ottawa, the poppy is used “to remember and honour the many thousands of ... fellow Canadians who have died in war.” The Canadian Legion evokes “the selfless acts of our troops from all wars”. So it is a celebration of all the wars conducted by Canada and of all Canadian soldiers, even those who are still fighting in Afghanistan. This call for remembrance omits some troubling truths.

Protecting freedom, really?

The Legion states that “because of our war veterans ... we exist as a proud and free nation.” Speaking of freedom, there are at least four lies in this statement. First, the Army is an authoritarian and hierarchical institution that seriously limits its members’ freedom of action and speech. Second, the Canadian state has twice imposed conscription in time of war, a process that denies freedom. Third, in Canada, soldiers have often crushed the desire for freedom: the armed intervention against the First Nations, the Métis, the Patriotes, the union demonstrations, not to mention the October Crisis and the Oka crisis or the machine-gunning in 1918 of demonstrations in Quebec City against conscription. Four, Canada has not been attacked militarily for almost 200 years, with the exception of the Irish Fenian incursions around 1865 and the German submarines in the St. Lawrence, which never represented serious threats to the “proud and free nation” that populates Canada. This lie about an army that protects our freedoms is so commonly accepted that it has served to justify the war in Afghanistan, as if the Taliban without war planes and ships were threatening to invade Canada to impose their tyranny, under the nose of the United States!


Our politicians like to have an army not to defend Canada, but to deploy it abroad: the Boer war (1899-1902), the First World War and deployment in Siberia against the Bolsheviks, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Iraq war (1991), the war in Kosovo (against Serbia), the war in Afghanistan and “peace-keeping” operations.

While some Canadian soldiers threw themselves into these conflicts thinking they were serving a noble cause, they nevertheless often lost their life “in vain”, sacrificed by some politicians seeking political prestige in the country or wishing to obey the metropolis (Great Britain) and to participate in imperialist undertakings, to be appreciated in the diplomatic arena, to serve national industry in general and the arms industry in particular, or to have the feeling of power procured by the wars they declare and lead without themselves participating.

Furthermore, in a professional army like Canada’s, soldiers go to war for a wage and the allowances paid when they are “deployed”, their next promotion, a search for adventure, esprit de corps (conformity), or simply to obey orders. That they are courageous is not politically meaningful, of course; the Islamic militants who engage in suicide attacks are very courageous. And afterwards? Often, the selflessness of the soldiers is expressed instead in a lack of interest concerning the causes of the war they waged (“I go where I’m ordered”) and the peoples of the countries they invade, content to declare their lack of responsibility when they kill civilians.

Who remembers the civilian victims?

The veterans’ lobby consciously maneuvers to ensure that this tragic truth is forgotten. In 2007, the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada successfully pressured the Canadian War Museum to withdraw a note reminding us that the massive bombing of Germany during the Second World War caused huge destruction and immense loss of lives: “The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested.”

The U.S. historian Howard Zinn, who volunteered to fight fascism, has a more faithful recollection. He later admitted that he bombed some cities “without even considering whether there was any relationship between what I was doing and the elimination of fascism in the world.” He admitted acting “like a programmed robot” during these air missions that resulted in the death of more than a half-million civilians.

It’s no surprise that soldiers want to commemorate their dead; that’s what every army in the world does in regard to theirdead soldiers in their wars. But why don’t we — we civilians — not commemorate instead the civilians assassinated en masse in the wars waged by “our” soldiers and their allies?

On November 11 in 1933, in Great Britain, the Women’s Cooperative Guild launched the white poppy campaign, which symbolizes the desire to work toward a world without violence. This campaign was organized by the kin of men who had died in the First World War, but they refused to encourage militarism and war. And on November 11, 2008, Dan Murphy of the Vancouver Province said he would now take a pass on the red poppy. “I've come to see those lapel decorations, the choreographed Remembrance Day hoopla and all the grandiloquence about dead soldiers as mostly a marketing device for recruiting the next generation of dead soldiers. This year ..., on Remembrance Day, I'll spend some time thinking about ALL the people who end up dying in a war,” including the civilian victims.

On this Remembrance Day, let us remember that soldiers are often cannon fodder and that their sacrificial death on behalf of the flag must be deplored and denounced, not celebrated. As civilians, let us remember the thousands of civilian victims who have lost their lives in the wars our state waged on the pretext that they were serving our interest — including this never-ending illegitimate war in Afghanistan. Since the Western attack in 2001, 152 Canadian soldiers have died there, to be sure, but also more than 35,000 Afghan men and women, the majority civilians. “Our” soldiers are responsible for the death of how many of these civilian victims? Will we ever know? Can we forget them?

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