Remembrance Day—November 11—is upon us once again. The red poppy has burst forth, and is now blooming on every lapel. And on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we will commemorate our war dead. Across Canada there has been a push to raise the profile of November 11. Bill C-597, for example, aims to compel Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia to make Remembrance Day a paid statutory holiday as it is in the rest of the country. “It is paramount,” declared a Canadian Legion official commenting on the bill, “that the significance of Remembrance Day is inculcated into our youth and to the general population to show their respect for the sacrifices of our Fallen.” The Legion’s guide for teachers stresses that Canadians have a duty to remember “our war dead and their sacrifices for our freedoms.” In these sentiments the familiar narrative of war and memorialization is rehearsed. The world is a dangerous place and many in it do not share our values. Wars are terrible but they are sometimes necessary to preserve our fundamental institutions of freedom and democracy. Those who have fallen in service to this noble cause must never be forgotten, not only because of their heroic sacrifice, but also because “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The link between past warfare and a peaceful future is forged every November 11. Honouring those who died on the battlefield, it is assumed, will somehow help the nation choose peace over war. Every November 11, however, the reality of warfare is largely forgotten – suppressed really. Remembrance Day is a misnomer. It neither preserves the memory of war nor promotes peace. It does the opposite of this. It obfuscates the reality of war in order to make future wars easier to embrace. A Remembrance Day that truly recalled the obscenity of war would leave us viscerally repelled. We would have to confront the waste, brutality and evil of war, the utter perversion of everything good and decent in human beings. Our war dead would not be glorified for their selfless service in a noble cause. We would mourn them, rather, as sacrificial victims of states and empires, of politicians and generals, of bankers and industrialists, for whom war is always axiomatically about wealth and power. Through its arresting shibboleths about war heroes and sacrificial mothers, its solemn pageantry, and the increasingly harsh censure of dissenters, Remembrance Day amounts to a celebration of slaughter rather than a condemnation of war.
A Remembrance Day that genuinely promoted peace would expose the lies of the war makers and demystify the mechanisms by which they were spread and made persuasive. It would systematically refute all the mendacious old myths—about duty to the nation-state, about the glory of killing and dying for it, about the masculine testing ground of the battlefield, about the ideal of physical courage in combat—that have so often served as tools of recruitment and indoctrination. If it honoured anyone, it would honour the true heroes of war, those who had the moral courage to refuse and resist, braving the opprobrium of the “patriots” and the persecution of the state in order to stand agains the enormous power of what one “Great War” dissident, Randolph Bourne, called “the war suction.”
It makes sense that it is the war that killed millions a century ago, reputed at the time to be the one that would “end all wars,” that supplies the symbols—the poppies, the cenotaphs, the elevens—for a day dedicated to willful blindness to the truth of war. One can understand the imperative to encourage people to forget a capitalist slaughter perpetrated by a wealthy elite and their generals in a struggle to carve up and appropriate the world’s resources. One can understand the need to confer some meaning, some purpose, some redeeming quality, on four years of insensate violence that produced nothing but blood money for profiteers and arms-makers. The fact that the elites made a killing through killing, as they always do, is nowhere in evidence on Remembrance Day. Nor is it acknowledged on November 11 that raising armies and forcing them to fight required state coercion—propaganda, conscription, and brute force—on a massive scale; or that this coercion eventually manifested itself as summary executions as desertion, insubordination, and mutiny at the front threatened to force a premature peace. And we hear nothing of Russia at the cenotaph, where the carnage and its handmaidens, famine and disease, fuelled a socialist revolution that the western powers, including Canada, sought to overturn by armed intervention in 1918 and after. Indeed, prosecuting the war provided the pretext for silencing socialists and other dissenters in all the belligerent countries, a project carried out by censorship, incarceration, deportation, and murder. Donald Trump’s vow to see Hillary Clinton thrown in jail is not without precedent. In 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson enjoyed the spectacle of his erstwhile election rival, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, convicted to ten years in prison for speaking out against the war. Of course Trump’s outrage at Clinton’s email infractions are as ironic as they are disingenuous. For in a just society, a society that actually remembered, Hillary Clinton would be vilified not for email carelessness, but for her war crimes as Secretary of State.
The truth of war cannot be heard above the 21 gun salutes and fighter jet flyovers of Remembrance Day. Dying bodies scream as they bleed, vomit, defecate, and writhe in pain. Mothers wail as children burn. Fathers sob as they frantically dig through rubble hoping to find a son or daughter who has not been crushed. Children cry for parents who will never come home. We will not think of refugees fleeing for safety, dropping dead from hunger and thirst—or, more recently, drowning—along the way. We will not remember the Afghan and Iraqi children killed by dysentery caused by contaminated drinking water, or those who must live amidst the depleted uranium and unexploded cluster bomblets left by invading “coalitions of the willing.” We will not remember the countless girls forced into sexual slavery by rampaging armies, or that the rape of women is a common military tactic and that sexual violence is widespread in all war zones, or that militaries deliberately target civilian infrastructures and attack civilian populations, or that ethnic cleansing is a routine feature of war. We certainly won’t recall the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous peoples of Canada, or the ethnic cleansing and imprisonment of Japanese-Canadian civilians during the so-called “Good War.” Indeed, we will not bother to observe that the word ‘civilian’ masks the fact that it is women who often bear the brunt of managing the horrors of war, everything from protecting children to caring for the broken veterans who survive. Nor will we recall the epidemic of PTSD, addiction, and suicide that currently plagues the soldiers and veterans of North America. We will forget that the children of Pakistan and Yemen today fear the clear blue sky because it heightens the danger of drone strikes. And we will forget, especially, the contemporary folly of far flung aggression by the United States and its allies (including Canada), attacks and invasions that have often removed democratically-elected governments and consigned countries – now called “failed states” by the imperialist club – to decades of misery. Nor will we recall that Canada was part of a warring coalition that installed a government in Afghanistan in the early 2000s with a much worse human rights record than the vanquished Taliban, or that Canada’s participation in the Afghan invasion was driven by the interests of its mining corporations, among the largest in the world, which were determined to get in on the resource bonanza of the conquest.
War is scrubbed clean on Remembrance Day. It unfolds in pristine parks to invoke a pristine image of war; neatly pressed suits and crisp uniforms and brass obligatoes correspond to the nation’s neatly pressed and shiny false memory. Long moments of silence echo the calculated silence, the ritualized and increasingly aggressive silencing of the authentic recollection of war – we note that some Canadians now talk of “poppy Nazism.” Remembrance Day suppresses the memory of war while propagating the old lies and myths that help to perpetuate it. The red poppy, as with many political symbols of humanity’s war-torn past, helps keep the war masters pumped and the war machine primed. Like the poppies of Oz, its fumes incite an amnesiac slumber.
Jeff Brown is a history professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Thom Workman is a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.