November 11, 2008

Je me souviens.

As Remembrance Day dawns we're once again subjected to chauvinistic platitudes and historical revisionism from various self-proclaimed defenders of peace, freedom of expression, and democracy. Media bring us tales of soldiers' "heroism", television tableaus overflow with gung-ho war movies. A day during which we could have reflected on the horror of war — and the 42 currently fought around us — is turned into a celebration of the armed forces and militarism.

What is ironic is how anti-democratic and stifling this trend is. Apart from distorting in the public mind the processes by which tolerant, democratic, and peaceful societies are actually forged (popular political organisation and action, as opposed to armed conflict), these simplistic ceremonies obscure the actual causes of war, and — worse still — serve as tools of indoctrination, insisting on absurd notions like the "necessity" of warfare. Notions aimed at turning future generations into willing recruits for further slaughter.

It's worthwhile then to remind ourselves of the grip that the martial sentimentalists still hold on our collective imagination, how for self-serving purposes they trample even the very things they claim we owe to their sacrifices. Things like the freedom to dissent, to express an opinion contrary to theirs, for example. It's nearly two years ago that the Royal Canadian Legion threatened the Peace Pledge Union with legal action for infringing on its "trademark" red poppies.

The PPU, founded in 1934, has for over seventy years been the distributor of the
White Poppy appeal, which the Legion suddenly felt threatened not only its economic interests, but apparently also its unique right to dictate history and influence current military policy. In its comment on the incident, the PPU reflected:

What was originally a meaningful ceremony of consolation for tens of thousands of bereaved quickly turned into a justification of a futile war, and every soldier became a hero. Those heroes, and the millions more who have died in war since then, continued to be 'honoured' and 'remembered'. But what does that mean? What is being honoured and remembered?

What was once a language of conciliation has become a language of obfuscation. When the victims and perpetrators merge into a meaningless whole, as in 'to honour those who have died in war', we know we are in fantasy-land. People go to war for many reasons — not all of them worthy of respect, let alone honour.

Tens of thousands rushed to the recruiting offices in 1914 for the adventure that the war might offer. Tens of thousands more, who did not want to go to war, were conscripted and signed up to kill — not to die. Why should we honour reckless or foolish adventurers because they were killed in a futile war? Why should we honour those who acquiesced with the state's order to go and kill — that is, to perform acts that are contrary to most moral codes and laws?

'Tell them of us and say "For your tomorrow we gave our today".' That inscription on a memorial to World War Two's Burma campaign is how the British Legion likes us to think of the war dead. It's a neat piece of sleight of hand, aiming to make us grateful, even a little uneasy. It certainly deflects deeper questions about the 'values' of war. It is this guilt-inducing meaning that the red poppy attaches to itself; and this is largely why so few dare to criticise its pernicious values. No one has died in war for me — or for you.
(The comment can be read in its entirety here.)

Let us then dare today to remember that in no other era in human history has so much time been spent talking about peace, and so little done for it. That there has never been more lies, more death, more destruction, and more despair than in our time. Let's remind ourselves of the human casualties, the millions of people murdered, as well as the material, economical, and cultural losses.

Let's remember how easily we can be deceived to lend our support to armed aggression in far away places, against people we don't know, who pose little — if any — threat to us. Most importantly, let's remember that when the battlefields finally fell silent on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, there was hope that one World War would be lesson enough for future generations. These things are worth remembering.

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