Reframing Remembrance Day

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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."


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