Remembrance Day should be about honouring sacrifice, not sacrificing truth

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Canadians advancing through German wire entanglements, Vimy Ridge, April 1917. Canada. Department of National Defence. Library and Archives Canada, PA-001029

Remembrance Day is on November 11 because on that day in 1918 the allies and the Germans signed the armistice that ended World War I, in Marshall Ferdinand Foch’s private railway carriage, in Compiègne, France.

Over the years, the day has come to be an occasion to recognize Canada’s sacrifices in all wars, including, of course, World War II. But this year, because we are marking the 100th anniversary of the battles of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge, in which Canada suffered heavy losses, we are paying particular attention to the first Great War.

Politicians and civic leaders in Canada like to paint that bloody conflagration as a coming-of-age moment for this country. And, in many ways, it was.

Full nationhood and executed soldiers

Canada had still been a partial colony until World War I. Great Britain exercised significant control over our foreign affairs and we did not have independent treaty-making power. A case in point: in 1903, Britain famously sided with the Americans in the Alaska boundary dispute, ceding to the U.S. a big chunk of the Alaskan panhandle that Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier believed was rightfully Canada’s.

The Great War, historians tell us, helped turn Canada from colony to nation. Canadian troops fought under Canadian, not British, command, and Canada’s sacrifices were enormous, far out of proportion to our small population. As a result, at the treaty-making table in Versailles, following the war, we successfully insisted on having our own seat, independent of Britain.

And so, this Remembrance Day is not only an occasion to honour those who gave their lives, it is a cause for celebration.  World War I gave Canada an opportunity to assert itself as a full-fledged member of the world community.

That’s the official version, and it is, in certain respects, true. What is false is not what it affirms, but what it leaves out.

It leaves out, for instance, the 23 Canadian soldiers who were court-martialed and summarily executed for desertion or cowardice during World War I. Today, we would consider that almost all of them suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Every single one of those executed soldiers had volunteered, and many had been injured or seen action in multiple operations. All were young, a few still in their teens, when they enlisted.

Early in the 21st century, the Canadian government belatedly added the executed soldiers’ names to Canada’s Book of Remembrance. But their collective fate underscores the cruel fact that during World War 1 the high command routinely treated the troops as, literally, cannon fodder. There was zero tolerance for the slightest human weakness, and senior officers believed the best way to keep their exhausted, dirty and terrified troops in line was not inspiration, but cruelty (which they called “discipline”). We don’t dwell much on that aspect of the war experience when we remember the sacrifices and heroism of the fallen.

The Seinfeld war — about nothing

And then there is the bigger question of what the Great War was all about.

We think of World War II as the good war. It was the war against world domination by megalomaniacs and the systematic mass murder of entire peoples.

Of course, that is today’s view, which benefits from hindsight. If you read British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speeches of the time, you’ll note that, as eloquent and inspiring as they are, for the most part they consist of appeals to patriotism and loyalty to the Empire, not paeans to democracy and minority rights.

Allied leaders never mentioned Hitler’s war against the Jews, the Roma and others the Nazis considered sub-humans. The full extent of that horror was, of course, unknown. More to the point, however, leaders of the time believed the most effective way to motivate their people was through old-fashioned appeals to “us against them”; to national self-interest, not the existential threat to democracy.

In the end, though, the Second World War was about something. It is horrifying to contemplate what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo — and their various supporting players such as Hungarian leader Admiral Miklós Horthy (still treated as a hero by the current nationalist government in Budapest) — prevailed. 

By contrast, the first Great War was the Seinfeld war, the war about nothing. In 1914, when an assassination in Sarajevo, then a minor outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lit the fuse that started the war, there was little to choose between the two sides when it came to respect for democracy and human rights. The rights of women, workers, the poor and minorities were of equally scant concern to the Austrian, German and Ottoman empires on one side and the British, Russian, French and American on the other.

In 1914, the United States was in the process of virulently instituting the Jim Crow regime, which deprived African Americans of whatever gains they had made following the Civil War. And while Britain had granted partial independence to some white parts of the empire, such as Canada and Australia, direct and indirect colonial rule still prevailed throughout the vast black, brown and beige empire. Everywhere, the conditions of those who toiled in factories or as agricultural labourers were, as a rule, terrible. Period photos of slum dwellers in the large and burgeoning cities, be they London, New York or Berlin, attest to the reality of steeply skewed inequality on both sides of the coming conflict.

World War I was more about great power competition for resources and control of the seas than the defence of enlightened ideals. It was not a struggle of light against darkness, good against evil. There was light and darkness, good and evil, on both sides.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was imprisoned during that First Word War for opposing conscription, once famously quipped that the war was about nothing more than petty rivalry among royal cousins, namely the King of England, the German Kaiser and the Russian Czar. Kaiser Wilhelm II was jealous of George V’s navy, the philosopher said, and so millions had to die.

In the summer 1914, when the war started, Russell had, with Alfred North Whitehead, just completed a massive work on the foundations of mathematics.  Nearly two decades earlier, after a visit to Germany, Russell and his wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, authored a book on German social democracy. They praised German innovations in social welfare, and the provision of such hitherto unknown benefits as old-age pensions. In 1914, when all around him the philosopher witnessed jingoistic jubilation at the chance to “whip the Hun”, his only thought was of the impending slaughter of thousands.

An opportunity for patriotic political rhetoric

Four years ago, as this country marked the 96th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, in which 3,600 Canadians died, a journalist dug up a six-year-old blog post by NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice. The Montreal MP wrote that World War One was "a purely capitalist war on the backs of the workers and peasants." English language media commentators and Conservative politicians immediately jumped on the NDP, then the Official Opposition. One reporter quoted retired soldier Roy Cundell, publisher of the website Veterans’ Voice, who said Boulerice had “spit” on Canada’s history.

Boulerice felt it necessary, then, to tell one and all that he honoured Canada’s veterans and their sacrifice. He apologized to any who might have been offended by his nearly forgotten, earlier words. That was not good enough for Cundell, who was quoted as saying: "The only apology I will accept is when he walks off Parliament Hill for the last time as a citizen again of whatever country he wants to go to…”

The truth is that we can honour, cherish and remember those who fought and died in battle without perpetuating the myth that every war we ever fought was noble, or even necessary.

For the most part, war is the worst way to sort out human differences, but it is the one to which leaders too often resort — for all kinds of bad reasons. Not the least of those is the power of the warrior class, or, more often, of an unholy alliance between an economic elite and that warrior class, what U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”.

This year, this Remembrance Day, with all the patriotic exuberance that the centenary of two major battles inevitably brings, do not expect any nuance, any qualifications as we remember those who fell 100 years ago. Even the NDP, now merely a third party, has fully subscribed to the acceptable, patriotic rhetoric. Here is the statement Irene Mathyssen, the NDP’s veterans’ affairs critic, issued on the anniversary of Passchendaele:

“(One hundred) years ago, 100,000 members of the Canadian Corps took part in the arduous Battle of Passchendaele… The battle was long and difficult and the sacrifices were great: 4,000 Canadian soldiers were killed and almost 12,000 wounded. But those sacrifices were not in vain… Today, New Democrats remember … those who lost their lives and those who came back with shattered bodies and shattered souls… 100 years later, we still honour those… who paid a terrible price to uphold the shared values of freedom and peace.”

And so we are meant to believe that the war to end all wars was about “shared values of freedom and peace”. Maybe. The fact remains, however, that at the time of World War I, those values, to the limited extent they were honoured in practice, were pretty much shared by both sides.

It was an entirely different story a little more than two decades later, in 1939, when the world went to war yet again.

Still, it might be worth remembering, today, that World War I resulted in the punitive conditions the victors imposed on the new and fragile democratic German republic. Those conditions, in turn, fed German resentment. Their impact was exacerbated by the worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s.

In 1933, the combined impact of the economic crisis and the victors’ conditions (which included financial reparations and German acceptance of all responsibility for the loss and damage of World War I) helped elect the ruthless demagogue who styled himself as the voice of German resentment and wounded pride.

The rest is history, and it is not very pretty. Lest we forget. 

Photo: Canadians advancing through German wire entanglements, Vimy Ridge, April 1917. Canada. Department of National Defence. Library and Archives Canada, PA-001029

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