Commentary  Amnesia in wartime

When we remember, what do we forget?

Every November, we are called on to reflect. We pause, writes Associate Vice Principal of University Services Jim Nicell in a recent MRO email, “to remember the thousands of men and women who sacrificed their lives in military service on behalf of their country.” Remembrance Day is framed – by ceremonies like the one this coming Sunday at McGill, and by the rhetoric of the Canadian state – as commemorating the suffering endured by Canadian troops, fighting abroad and dying or returning home. But the way this remembrance takes place does a disservice not only to those troops, but also to everyone who is affected by war, whose lives were and continue to be torn apart by death, displacement, and sexual violence in the course of armed conflict.

When we remember on November 11, it is generally with great sadness for lives destroyed and with horror at the power of war. But these feelings are useless -– or worse, can perpetuate more violence  – when they are directed only historically and uncritically. What we should remember this Sunday, and always, is that little has changed since 1918 when it comes to war. Soldiers are still working-class people sent to die en masse for imperialist interests on behalf of the wealthy. Civilians are still disposable.

Yet every year the appeal to remember is made by the same state that ships those who are honoured by this act off to die, with utter disregard for those who will be affected on the other end of their violence. It erases the experiences of women who are raped during war, individually or as part of a larger system of sexual slavery; children who are murdered, orphaned, or forced to participate in conflicts; queers and trans* people who are raped and killed; indigenous populations who are obliterated in the name of expansion, God, freedom, or defense on the part of the invading country; war resisters or deserters who are persecuted for their beliefs; independent groups who form outside the army during times of conflict to commit acts of sabotage; racialized peoples who face discrimination or internment – and this is only an abbreviated list. These lives often equal or outnumber soldiers, yet on Remembrance Day, it’s only those “who sacrificed their lives in military service on behalf of their country” who are worthy of our solemn reflection.

When the state presents November 11 as a day of national mourning without acknowledging its own role in creating the events that necessitate this mourning in the first place, it’s a reminder that nationalist commemoration has never really been about remembering the full extent of what happens and who is affected during armed conflict. Remembrance Day can all too easily serve as a platform for militaristic nationalism, a means – like the Harper government’s $28 million promotion of the War of 1812 – of garnering our pride in Canada’s armed forces even as we rattle sabres toward Iran.

This is not to say we shouldn’t remember – rather, we need to remember better. We need to be critical of national campaigns that erase the causes and casualties of war as well as disguise Canada’s interest in waging more of them. We need to ask ourselves if there’s anything odd – some would say completely fucked up – about commemorating the dead on the campus of a university actively developing weapons technology that will guarantee more dead to commemorate for centuries to come.

What we need to remember most of all is that remembrance is useless unless it remembers equally, and unless it actively seeks to dismantle the machinery of war by challenging the institutions that perpetuate it.

Flora Dunster is a U3 Art History student and former Daily Copy editor. You can reach her at Sheehan Moore is a U3 Anthropology student, former Daily Design & Production editor, and Chair of the Daily Publications Society. You can reach him at