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Misremembering warfare

The selective memory of Remembrance Day at McGill

It may appear dissonant that while McGill hosts a ceremony today commemorating those who died in Canada’s wars, its researchers are hard at work in underground labs helping to develop more lethal weapons for Western armies. Once a year, McGill urges us not to be alarmed by the loud sound of gunfire, so that the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers for their country may be remembered. Today, we should seek to expand our field of reflection, to question how and why we are asked to remember, and to understand how this University’s ongoing complicity in waging war connects with the grand display of mourning to which it offers a stage.

The rhetoric of Remembrance Day goes far beyond the mourning of individuals killed in wars: it celebrates the actions of soldiers, and warfare more generally, as necessary for the defense of our ‘freedom’ against an indefinite network of enemies. This narrative serves to obscure the true motives of past and present wars, waged to an overwhelming degree for the purpose of securing colonial state interests.

Such wars – the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as prime examples – tend to be driven by imperialist quests for natural resources and paternalistic views of non-Western societies. The ‘War on Terror’ has assured the destruction of life on a massive scale, while it inevitably produces new enemies to serve as justification for continually expanding conflict.

McGill’s participation in advancing this dominant discourse of remembrance serves to distract from the actual quality of the University’s complicity in war, a complicity coldly grounded in the profitability of military-industrial development. McGill provides material assistance to military research objectives not in search of the valour that Remembrance Day falsely assigns to the defence of Canadian freedom, but because of the lucrative potential of direct military funding, partnerships with defence contractors, and grants from research agencies increasingly compliant to the private sector. As an institution adhering to capitalist logic, the University places profit before human dignity, but also before the abstract values it purports to give centre stage every November 11.

Yet, McGill remains invested in Remembrance Day’s particular way of producing feeling. The event is designed to reiterate an affective order governed by the systems of domination that flow from and maintain colonial, capitalist state power. We are asked to feel the sacrifice of the dead white men who followed orders so that today we may live in a world of endless choice.

The day is a rehearsal of selective feeling as much as selective memory. It both responds to the demands of nationalism and develops a justification for the continued imperialist exercise of military power.

This remembrance upholds white supremacy, when we need not even reflect on the idea that the lives of ‘our’ soldiers are more deserving of commemoration than those of the people of colour targeted for distant assassination by CIA drones. This remembrance upholds patriarchy, when it erases the sexual violence regularly perpetrated as a weapon of war against women and girls – an erasure required by the myths surrounding military heroism.

This remembrance makes invisible the economic ordering of society when it imagines that the soldiers who died manifested a unified national will and were not, rather, compelled to their deaths by a draft they were too poor to evade or by the absence of other ways to survive. Still today, both the Canadian and U.S. armies target high schools in poor areas for intensive recruitment.

The day is a rehearsal of selective feeling as much as selective memory. It both responds to the demands of nationalism and develops a justification for the continued imperialist exercise of military power.

McGill’s investments in the refinement and expansion of this power through weapons research and military collaboration in the production of knowledge give rise to an investment in the annual spectacle of Remembrance Day. It is in McGill’s interest that students not think too much about the countless lives destroyed by the imperialist wars that the established modes of engaging with law, politics, and economy help propagate. It is in McGill’s interest for students to have no strong feelings about the thousands of victims of thermobaric bombings from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. It is in McGill’s interests that students not remember the miners who gathered for dinner in Zowi Sidgi, North Waziristan, on July 6, 2012 and were killed by a Predator drone strike, or the villagers who sought to help the wounded and were killed by a second strike moments later – a U.S. practice known as a “double tap.” For at least the span of a cold morning in November, under the guise of remembrance, the University defends these interests.

The work of the Shock Wave Physics Group, the CFD Lab, and others, continues undisrupted, as the spectators gathered outside silently separate its ultimate casualties and survivors from the realm of their remembrance. In the absence of the spectacle, the colonial nation-state of Canada is not worth dying for any more than the defence of Western society justifies the endless invasions, occupations, and massacres conducted in its name. And so, the crowds will be back next year, to start again.

Demilitarize McGill organizes with the aim of ending military research on campus. If you have questions or comments, or want to get involved, get in touch with them at, or visit their website: