Commentary  “The Military Is For Everyone”

Intersectional Imperialism in Remembrance Day Commemorations

content warning: racism, violence, war

“Aboriginal Soldiers Among Canada’s Top Snipers in First World War” by Nelson Wyatt, The Globe and Mail

“The Story of Canada’s WWI All-Black Military Battalion” CBC Kids

“Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of World War One ‘Silence’ Far Right” by Rahil Sheikh, BBC Asian Network

“My Grandpa, a Soldier Forgotten on Remembrance Day” by Stanford Li, CBC Montreal

These articles glorify service to the nation-state, specifically military service and sacrifice. As per Wyatt’s article, “modern sniping was born amid the muck of the battlefields of the First World War and some of its deadliest practitioners were soldiers from Canada’s First Nations communities.” This quote is evidence of how the “intersectional imperialist” discourse attempts to prove the worth of Indigenous people through their military success. It is dehumanizing to value individuals on the basis of their military success; people should be valued irrespective of their value as manpower to an imperialist Western state.

Reading these articles makes me think about marginalized communities seeking to be included in this narrative. While individuals wanting to “integrate” is understandable, the broader trend here, which justifies militarism, is concerning. Li writes, “it pains me to see that every year, a large number of people, like my grandpa, are left out of commemorations on Remembrance Day.” Perhaps the desire to be integrated into mainstream commemorations stems from respectability politics, wherein marginalized people conform to societal conceptions of respectability in the hopes of advancing their position within the social hierarchy.

It is dehumanizing to value individuals on the basis of their military success; people should be valued irrespective of their value as manpower to an imperialist Western state.

In a more extreme example of respectability politics, Hayyan Bhabha told the BBC Asian Network: “the core far-right narrative is that Muslims have never done anything for us. Well, actually, with facts that are over 100 years old, we can say Muslims fought and died for the history and security of Europe.” Here, Bhabha attempts to challenge the far-right’s Islamophobia by emphasizing the contributions of Muslims in both World Wars. He is arguing that Muslims should be valued because they “fought and died for the history and security of Europe.” It is preposterous to think that xenophobic, Islamophobic groups will repent upon the discovery that Muslims have proven their worth by fighting for Britain. Racism and Islamophobia are ideologies that will not be defeated by engaging with racist or Islamophobic rhetoric. They must be challenged by valuing Muslims for their inherent worth as people.

Furthermore, by focusing on the actions of individuals, the state and military are absolved of responsibility for their systemic violence, be it the violence of war or the violence of colonialism.

In terms of the literal violence of war, none of these articles mention any of the atrocities of WWI or WWII, apart from vague mentions of “sacrifice.” In Li’s article, he writes “it’s only by honouring all sacrifice, no matter the nationality, just like at Langemark, that we can erase past animosities and avert future conflict.” This line begs the question, sacrifice for what? Talking about sacrifice in the abstract – i.e. without talking about the individual and material ramifications of war – is meaningless. In Wyatt’s article, he writes “foremost among them was Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow, credited with 378 kills during his four years on the shell-shattered front lines of Europe.” To speak so casually of his “kill score” is also dehumanizing to those killed. Military killings are sanctioned, sanitized, and normalized in these attempts to integrate marginalized peoples into the mainstream military discourse.

In the article about Muslim participation in the World Wars, absent is any mention that the subcontinent was under British colonial rule until 1947. Therefore, there is obviously no mention of the violence of British rule in India or of the coercive dynamics that led to such large populations of South Asians fighting in the World Wars.

Talking about sacrifice in the abstract – i.e. without talking about the individual and material ramifications of war – is meaningless.

The CBC Kids article discusses the existence of an all-Black battalion in WWI, which became “one of the most important military units in Canadian history.” The article specifies that Black men were initially told they could not enlist. However, there is no mention of the structural economic and social barriers that Black people would continue to face for over 100 years, be it discrimination, economic barriers, or state sanctioned violence (i.e. police brutality). Similarly, the piece on Indigenous snipers glorifies their participation while making no mention of the ongoing cultural genocide of Indigenous people perpetuated by the Canadian state. Residential schools, for example, were in full swing in the 1910s. To emphasize the service of Indigenous people in the Canadian Armed Forces without discussing the state’s forced assimilation is to erase the latter.

Not only does talking about individuals in a vacuum erases the state’s violence, it also is historically inaccurate. Significant outcomes of WWI were the anti-war and pacifist movements. By forgetting these condemnations of war, we are distanced from the horrors many hoped to avoid. None of these articles engage with war in the contemporary context, nor do any commemorations: they are stuck in the past. More true to the spirit of the Armistice are the actions of London activists who laid orange (read: lifeboats) wreaths at the UK Ministry of Defense. The vigil has happened annually on Remembrance Day since 2016. It is a protest against the UK government’s inaction in the face of an ongoing humanitarian crisis; 16-17 people die every day attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea to seek refuge in Europe, 33,000 people have drowned since 2000, and 5,000 people died trying to reach the UK. The protestors argue that the British government’s lack of aid in the form of long term solutions to the situation amounts to violence, particularly given the devastating impacts of British colonialism and neo-colonialism in the Middle East. To these protestors, to remember war is to remember ongoing violence. This vigil engages with the present and demands a response to the ongoing crisis.

We must resist attempts to integrate historically marginalized people into pro-military narratives. We must value people of colour for their inherent worth, not because they served “King and Country.” We must remember why we oppose war and continue to oppose conflicts today