culture,  history,  meaning of life

What to remember on Remembrance Day?

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Remembrance Day and its American counterpart, Veterans’ Day, are coming up soon. November 11th is a tricky holiday where on one hand I’m not comfortable with the idea of glorifying war and on the other hand I want to acknowledge the risk soldiers have taken and the sacrifices they, and their families, have made.

This year my thoughts are shaped largely by the book  A War of Individuals: Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War by Jonathan Atkin. The picture of the war I gain through that book is of a war that whole countries felt drawn into. It wasn’t sending off their soldiers, it was sending off their young. Sacrifices were made by those who did not want to be there as much as by those who did want to. The picture is of war not as the prerogative of soldiers who choose to be there but as the challenge of a generation, much as climate change is probably going to be the experience of my generation.

I find myself contrasting John McCrae’s line from his poem “In Flander’s Fields”:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

which makes it sound like war is something glorious that must be continued, with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, particularly his poem “The Parable Of The Old Man And The Young” which goes:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Like John McCrae, Wilfred Owen fought and died during WWI. There is some suggestion in the book that others tried to have him exempt from the war for his poetic skills (imagine a time period when poetry was that honored!) but that he stayed in because he didn’t want his poems to be seen as those of a coward.

I found myself seeking out more information about the conscientious objectors to the war, and learning a bit about how young soldiers were made to execute other young soldiers for running away. Scared, lost young men didn’t know what they were doing or how to get out of the dreadful situations they found themselves in.

Bertrand Russell objected to the war saying that “war is perpetuating this moral murder in the souls of vast millions of combatants; every day many of them are passing over to the dominion of the brute by acts that will kill what is best within them.”  In modern times we could talk about the growth of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst the troops. How we reconcile the yellow ribbons saying “support our troops” with the notion that we are sending them off into wars that kills a part of them (if not the whole person). Do we support them as sacrificial lambs? How do you support a sacrificial lamb anyway? By sacrificing him or perhaps by trying to redefine the job as one that kills others (and the person’s humanity) but not their body? Or by pulling them out of the war to begin with?

Please note I’m not saying every soldier loses their humanity. I don’t know, and I don’t know how the share of blame is divided between those who carry out the orders, those who give the orders, and those of us who stand silently by allowing those to give the orders to have power.

Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, wrote in 1916 about John Maynard Keynes and the Military Service Bill conscripting the British into WWI:

He held out hopes of a conscience clause. The bill had first been drafted without one then Reginald McKenna [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] put one in but Maynard thought that it would only do for Quakers and made him change it.

John Maynard Keynes was working at the treasury at that time, received an exception from the draft for his state work but applied for one on basis of conscience, perhaps out of plans to cease working for the government. His friends, particularly fellow Bloomsbury member Lytton Strachery were giving him a hard time for working for a government that was at war. Was he in effect supporting the war? War makes us all its accomplices.

Then there was poet Max Plowman wrote that had he preached peace and internationalism before the war he might have felt justified in going for conscientious objector status, but because he did not do that but instead prospered under a national system that led to war, he could not therefore reject his share of responsibility for that nation. He had to participate in the war.

Other writers felt like they had to participate in the war because they had to share in the experience of their generation. Some felt like they had no reason to privilege themselves if their friends and neighbours were going to risk death and die. They did not want to value their lives above others.

When the British allowed for people to claim conscientious objector status the people had to show that they had a long standing objection to war, and not just to that war in particular. It is an interesting distinction. It is like they were saying it is okay to disagree on whether war is good or not, but the decision of whether this war is or not is the prerogative of the government. It is an interesting balance. To say “we don’t care about your opinion of this specific war, only war in general” might seem unfair and yet the war efforts were all about ignoring people’s opinions. That’s one of the Bloomsbury members biggest objections to the war, and to the draft, was the idea that it denied people the ability to make choices for themselves. The Bloomsbury group was a bit ahead of its time in valuing individual choice.

Individual choice. Individual responsibility. After World War Two the Nuremberg principals declare that “just following orders” isn’t an adequate excuse to participating in war crimes. In principal at least that embraces the Bloomsbury’s ideals of personal choice. Yet war itself cannot really be fought like that.

Modern wars are fought with fewer people on the ground. Fewer western people have to experience the horror of war. We’re not sacrificing the whole “seed of Europe, one by one” like in Wilfred’s poetry, but yet people are still being sacrificed. Iraq used to be a reasonably modern secular society (under a dictator, yes) but now a whole generation of people have grown up under the shadow of war. Palestinian children are growing up penned in by fences that separate them from what used to be their parents’ life-giving olive groves. The shadow of war, hatred, and suffering is still present in this world.

There are many Remembrance Day quotes I keep hearing. One of them is “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, “Mother, what was war?”” I know the intent is simply to wish that wars were a thing completely of the past, but when I hear it I find myself picturing a North American child living in peace and comfort oblivious to the wars going on in other countries. A child or adult’s ignorance of war does not necessarily require war to not exist. We do such a good job of hiding ourselves from the truth of what is going on elsewhere. We need to stop doing that, we need to acknowledge that war does exist and so that we can prioritize stopping it.

This post was originally published November 6, 2012.

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