Reframing Remembrance Day

| November 11, 2011

As we honour today the men and women who have fought and died in uniform, it is important that our remembrance of them not be taken as an endorsement of war or a celebration of all things military. For many people, soldiers in uniform do not inspire feelings of pride but memories of horror, destruction, and death. Some of us are survivors of war or refugees. Others of us who were born here are Canadians because our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents fled the violence of wars in faraway lands.

Many of the people who served in war wearing a Canadian uniform did so because they believed in the cause for which they were fighting, and that they were fighting for a better world. Sometimes that was true. Sometimes it was not. It is an eternal feature of war that the people who die in them are rarely the people who start them, and they are seldom the people who profit from them. We should recognize the nobility of sacrifice on their part, but we should not let that cloud our moral judgement by readily assuming, without reason or question, that the cause for which they fought was always just.

In the eyes of the indigenous people from whom this land of Canada was taken by force, the military we like to celebrate is an occupying army; its triumphs are their defeats. It is important to remember in Canada that all our wars have been wars of choice, not of self-defence, and that a foreign army has not crossed our borders since the U.S. attacked in the War of 1812, and that even that war, from the point of view of indigenous peoples, was not a defensive war but a skirmish between two colonial powers fighting for control of lands that were not theirs to take in the first place.

Outside the continent too the Canadian military has not always been seen the way we like to see ourselves. Back at the turn of the last century, Canada sent 2,700 troops to support British forces in the Boer War against the descendents of Dutch settlers for control of South Africa (a land that belonged neither to Britain nor to the Dutch). Canadian troops participated in a scorched earth campaign that destroyed crops, poisoned wells, destroyed villages, and set up concentration camps in which 28,000 thousand people, mostly children, died of disease, starvation, and exposure.

During the First World War, in the face of massive opposition from its French-speaking citizens, Canada sent 600,000 soldiers to prop up the British Empire. Sixty-seven thousand Canadians lost their lives. In 1932 Canada sent gunboats and soldiers to help put down a Communist insurrection in El Salvador and support the unpopular military regime of Hendandez Martinez, which carried out one of the worst massacres in El Salvador history under the watchful eye of the Canadian military.

During the Second World War, Canadian soldiers fought valiantly to liberate Europe from Nazi rule, yet for the colonized peoples of Africa, European "liberation" simply meant that control of their lands reverted back to their original colonizers, a mere transfer of ownership from one despotic European power to another. In the post-war period, Canada redefined itself as a "peacekeeping" nation, a role that received enthusiastic backing from the United States during the Cold War, as it freed up its troops to pursue its decade-long war against Vietnam.

While Canadians like to think of their military interventions in other countries as missions of liberation and peacemaking, they have not always been seen that way by others. Its "peacekeeping" mission in the Congo in the 1960s saw it provide military and logistic support for the assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, whose nationalist government threatened the interests of Western mining companies.

In 1999, the Canadian military took part in a NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia that it touted as a "humanitarian" mission to prevent the slaughter of ethnic Kosovars but which, in fact, spurred on the ethnic cleansing it was supposedly trying to prevent. The NATO campaign, which did not have UN backing and was illegal under international law, resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia and the elimination of Slobodan Milosevic, a brutish man who also happened to be the last Soviet-era leader to resist NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe.

The Canadian military played a crucial role in the coup that toppled the democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, in 2004. It was Canadian troops that ushered Aristide at gunpoint into the plane that flew him into exile, paving the way for the return of Haitian death squads, which promptly commenced the wholesale slaughter of Aristide supporters and anyone associated with his popular Lavalas party.

While Canadians like to think of their military as forces of peacekeeping and liberation, Canadian troops were not seen as peacekeepers in Somalia in 1993, when members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment tortured to death a 16-year-old Somali boy while as many as 80 soldiers with the listened to his screams. The incident led to an investigation that revealed such widespread systemic violence against Somali civilians that the Canadian government, out of embarrassment, disbanded the Airborne Regiment. Similarly, Canadians have not been seen as liberators in Afghanistan, where even a high ranking Canadian diplomat has confirmed the complicity of Canadian forces in the torture of Afghan detainees.

So today, let us remember all the victims of war, ours and others, civilian and military. Let us honour the young men and women who in service to their country fought and sometimes died with the best of intentions, if not with the full knowledge of what they were being asked to do, or why they were being asked to do it.

Let us acknowledge that they too were victims of war, as well as victims of poverty and marginalization, which for so many young men and women over the decades has made the military one of the few routes to opportunity, education, and social advancement. Many return home suffering from anxiety and depression, their health wrecked, and they do not always get the counselling or help they need from the government they served.

Let us remember all aspects of war, not just those that make us feel good about ourselves.

Today, let us remember everything.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto writer and high school teacher. This piece was originally submitted as a speech to be read during his school's annual Remembrance Day assembly but was deemed "too political."




Thanks for the thoughtful reflections.

One sentence on WW2....are you kidding me?! Yes, gloss over it, because it was totally justifiable, and Mr. Kunin would hate to have to admit that.

Mr. Phil wrote:
One sentence on WW2....are you kidding me?! Yes, gloss over it, because it was totally justifiable, and Mr. Kunin would hate to have to admit that.

Yeah, that was a great war! It saved us forever from the possibility that we might end up living under fascis — oh, wait. Never mind.

Phil, I think you are missing the point. I suggest you read some contrary opinions, such as this piece by the late, great Howard Zinn. Excerpt:


They tell me I am a l member of the greatest generation. That's because I saw combat duty as a bombardier in World War II, and we (I almost said "I") won the war against fascism. I am told this by Tom Brokaw, who wrote a book called The Greatest Generation, which is all about us. He is an anchorman for a big television network, meaning that he is anchored to orthodoxy, and there is no greater orthodoxy than to ascribe greatness to military valor.

That idea is perpetuated by an artillery barrage of books and films about World War II: Pearl Harbor, Saving Private Ryan, and the HBO multi-episode story of the 101st Airborne, Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose's book of the same name. And Ambrose has just published an exciting history of the valiant "men and boys" who flew B-24s.

The crews who flew those planes died in great numbers. We who flew the more graceful-looking B-17s sardonically called those other planes Bdash2crash4. I wrote from my air base in England to my friend Joe Perry, who was flying B-24s out of Italy, kidding him about his big clunk of a plane, but the humor was extinguished when my last letter to him came back with the notation "Deceased."

Those who saw combat in World War II, whether they lived or died, are celebrated as heroes. But it seems clear that the degree of heroism attributed to soldiers varies according to the moral reputation of the war. The fighters of World War II share a special glory because that war has always been considered a "good war," more easily justified (except by those who refuse to justify any war) than the wars our nation waged against Vietnam or Korea or Iraq or Panama or Grenada. And so they are "the greatest generation."

What makes them so great? These men-the sailors of Pearl Harbor, the soldiers of the D-Day invasion, the crews of the bombers and fighters- risked their lives in war, perhaps because they believed the war was just, perhaps because they wanted to save a friend, perhaps because they had some vague idea they were doing this "for my country." And even if I believe that there is no such thing as a just war, even if I think that men do not fight for "our country" but for those who run our country, the sacrifice of soldiers who believe, even wrongly, that they are fighting for a good cause is to be acknowledged. But not admired.

I refuse to celebrate them as "the greatest generation" because in doing so we are celebrating courage and sacrifice in the cause of war. And we are miseducating the young to believe that military heroism is the noblest form of heroism, when it should be remembered only as the tragic accompaniment of horrendous policies driven by power and profit. Indeed, the current infatuation with World War II prepares us-innocently on the part of some, deliberately on the part of others-for more war, more military adventures, more attempts to emulate the military heroes of the past.

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