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Features | What we remember

Remembrance Day obscures the violence of the military’s past and present

As November rolls around, it’s time for yet another article about Remembrance Day. In the Commonwealth of Nations, which is mostly made up of the UK and its former territories, the 11th of November is a day that marks the armistice of the World War I in 1918 and commemorates deceased members of the armed forces. As McGill University and its surrounding communities choose to repeat the ceremony on campus every year, and while political climates both abroad and in Canada continue to intensify, the necessity for opposition to Remembrance Day must be emphasized. While many may feel outraged by this dissent and call it a disrespectful politicization of Remembrance Day, the fact remains that Remembrance Day is inherently political.

Let us not forget that winners write history, covering up a multitude of narratives and leaving them to be forgotten. The narrative that Remembrance Day chooses to commemorate is not representative of any universal history or sanctimonious truth; it is deliberately chosen by a government and an administration to promote the political decisions that led to war in the past and still lead to war today. Opposition to Remembrance Day is not a gratuitous, reactionary, or uneducated attack on those mourning on November 11. Rather, it is one of the few means that remain at our disposal to confront the jingoistic ideologies tied to a sentiment of collective grief, that while legitimate for some, are a constructed fiction for many.

To mourn and remember may be a natural right that transcends common law, but it is no justification for privileged patriotism to be proudly exercised at the expense of those currently experiencing wars waged by Commonwealth nations. Expressing grief through the fanfare of restrictive symbols, selective history, and arms undermines the value and sincerity of memorial thought altogether. The echoing sounds of gunshots and cannons across Montreal this Wednesday, dubbed “artillery salute,” exemplify this.

One of the more disturbing aspects of Remembrance Day is the disparity between the World War I official narrative and its realities, a discrepancy propagated in Canada to this day. Veterans Affairs Canada says that 68,000 Canadian citizens died between 1914 and 1918 because they “gave their lives and their futures so that we may live in peace.” This notion of giving and sacrifice is constantly used as part of a vocabulary that serves to mythologize and justify death. In reality, World War I was embroiled in an early 20th century thirst for imperialist and colonial power. In the words of the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, “The bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war. It was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.” The obscured narratives of World War I are particularly important to uncover, due to the centrality of the war’s of symbolism in Remembrance Day traditions.

Similarly, among British Commonwealth forces in World War I, no one who “fell” did so for a noble cause, and this is perhaps the tragedy that many find so difficult to face: it is much less harrowing if one can say “this war was waged for you, me, and our nation,” rather than “this war was waged for absolutely nothing.” This type of justifying rhetoric was displayed in the selection of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” as the emblematic poem of World War I, turning the red poppy into the symbol that it is now, as well as the phrase “lest we forget” – a phrase from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” about how the British empire will only be saved once we remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In George Orwell’s “Essay on Kipling,” he says: “It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life […] can be accepted or even forgiven. […] There is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Why do we honour poets like Kipling, who use verse as a call to arms, over poets who, rather than praising war, denounced the futility of it? Wilfred Owen’s lines written in 1917, which detail the cost of war on human lives, are instead worth our attention:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori’ [‘it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’].”

Indeed, renewed idealizations of the war only serve to retell an old lie.

The myth of the “Great War”

Too often, we are told that those who died in “The Great War” died for our sake, for the sake of democracy, and for my freedom to write these words, but this simply is not true. The motivations behind the war were intrinsically intertwined with white supremacy, competitive industrialization, and a scramble for domination. At the turn of the century, the urge to import raw materials in order to satisfy consumer needs in the metropole was fueled by a discourse suggesting that “Western” countries could and needed to better the rest of the “savage” world. Kipling, as the bard of the “civilized world,” made such Eurocentrism and racism rhyme in his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden.” This sense of entitlement and domination was in no way vital to the wellbeing of the allied nations; its only purpose was to appease a greed for foreign capital and justify a colonizing mission.

When remembering World War I, it is cowardly to ignore the role of the war’s conscientious objectors in past resistance movements. No justice is done to the history of previous generations in failing to recognize their social and economic situations at the time, especially their absence from the decision-making process that declared war in their name. Voting conditions in the early 20th century were abysmal, as many men of colour or without property were denied full suffrage, and women in Quebec also couldn’t vote until the 1940s. The patriarchal glorification of the male war hero in narratives of war continually omits the fact that many men were forced to fight against their will by conscription and out of poverty.

The narratives promoted also often fail to recognize the vital work done by women during wartime and, perhaps most of all, relegate the involvement of racialized peoples to a third place. The experiences of Indigenous and other racialized peoples in wars are constantly understated and left out of history, which only perpetuates and normalizes the exploitative discourse that forced a number of them to fight for and alongside the very same people who occupied their lands and committed genocides of their people throughout Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, South Asia, and Oceania. During the East African Campaign, part of what colonizers called the “African Theatre” of World War I, the death toll of African porters – comprised of civilian men, women, and children – far exceeded that of European soldiers. According to Edward Paice at the Africa Research Institute, 95,000 porters alone died carrying supplies for British troops.

What we do, and don’t remember on campus

In light of these factors complicating dominant narratives, the theatrics of Remembrance Day on the McGill campus seem absurd. Soldiers carrying weapons and performing salutes supposedly teach us not to repeat conflicts like those of the past, but their mere presence advocates for their present-day use. Setting up tools of violence in a dramatized context serves only to romanticize and fictionalize a brutality that is a very real experience for some. It should go without saying that out of the 30,000 students at McGill, it’s likely that gunshots and tanks rolling past the Roddick Gates could be traumatic for some, and no amount of remembrance is worth this trauma; remembering the past should never come at the expense of those living in the present.

Those who support Remembrance Day on the grounds that it teaches us not to engage in war are neglecting the fact that wars are indeed being fought at present – but out of sight and out of mind. Syria is now one of the present-day battlegrounds for international conflicts and interventionism, but because there is a lack of repercussion on Canadian soil, the terrible effects of war elsewhere do not resonate with many Canadians. Remembrance Day not only commemorates violence of the past, but violence of the present. As long as militaries are actively perpetuating state violence and calling it “benign” and “defensive,” these official events are validating past warmongering and essentially giving everyone a thumbs up to continue.

No amount of remembrance is worth this trauma; remembering the past should never come at the expense of those living in the present.

The height of irony is reached when recognizing that the weapons brought onto campus each November 11 are in fact being brought onto unceded Kanien’kehá:ka traditional territory. While the administration has been busy planning events to commemorate war, it has completely ignored repeated initiatives to merely recognize that the university sits on unceded land.

Remembrance Day becomes a show of double standards and hypocrisy when one contemplates the University’s complicity in perpetuating war across the world. Student groups have uncovered and criticized research conducted at McGill that could be used for the development of weapons and surveillance programs. For example, student group Demilitarize McGill found that researchers at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering’s Shock Wave Physics Group (SWPG) were establishing technical foundations that could be used for manufacturing thermobaric weapons. Additionally, McGill mechanical engineering professors and researchers have signed contracts with Canada’s Department of National Defence.

Admonishing war and commemorating the deceased while having a hand in perpetuating more wars is nothing short of deceitful. That these double standards exist is a relic of an archaic moral code that commands individuals not to kill some on the one hand, while encouraging them to kill others in the name of nationalism on the other.

Resisting state violence

This isn’t to say that a rejection of militarism requires one to reject the validity of all violence. Indeed, while violence is legitimized by states to suit the needs of some and deny the agency of others, painting the situation white with absolute pacifism is not a useful response. Whether it is narrowly choosing to see Remembrance Day as an advocation of peacekeeping or actively advocating for an idealized and universal peace, both responses serve to silence crucial forms of emancipatory violence. Unseen from the discourse on our campus is the mention of countless people for whom fighting is the only answer when given the choice between resistance or obliteration. The final means of empowerment – revolt – deserves respect that should neither be undermined by unwarranted state violence nor ignored in pacifist discourse. We must consider the scale of oppressive violence that is enacted against many, and weigh the necessity of certain acts against this disproportionate repression, before casting judgement – be it on the civil unrest of protesters in Ferguson, the stone throwers in Palestine, or the Kanien’kehá:ka in Ka’nehsatà:ke during the Oka Crisis 25 years ago.

So this week, when students, faculty, and community members walk past each other wearing poppies, remember that there are legitimate reasons for opposing the symbolism of Remembrance Day, which justifies wars for comfort, fear, and material interests. This dissent aims not be divisive for the sake of controversy, but rather to challenge ideas that have dire repercussions, whether they are felt personally by the dissenters or not. The aggressiveness that Remembrance Day protesters on campus were met with a year ago is a sign of the intolerant nationalist zeal that comes with such a day, only being encouraged by the events displayed on campus. In hosting Montreal’s Remembrance Day ceremony, McGill as an educational establishment fails to set an example for its students, and instead chooses to perpetuate a tradition of misguided pride. Remembering those whom we lost should not be a nationalistic project. In the meantime, perhaps we will be able to bridge our differences on the small hope that in the coming years a Remembrance Day article like this will no longer be a necessity.


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