The brouhaha about white poppies is back and boring again, this year exacerbated by a seething campaign of fake indignation mounted by the herd of hacks at Canada’s worst newspaper. Well, it gives them something to do in the brief period before they begin to seethe with fake indignation about retailers who say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” and all that portends for the imminent collapse of civilization. This year, Ottawa’s Rideau Institute produced something like 2,500 white poppies versus the Legion’s 18 million red ones and yet to read the populist piffle in the Toronto Sun (and its various unwilling progeny) is to get the impression that this insidious commie plot, well, portends the imminent collapse of civilization. Can’t make a living as an ideologue if you don’t have a crisis.
More and more each year I find myself discomforted by Remembrance Day, and especially by the efforts of some organizations to impose a singular interpretation on the memory of the wars and how we should feel about them. As an historian of the home front, I find the most remarkable thing about Canadian society in wartime to be the disjuncture between propaganda that stressed unanimity and common purpose and the actuality of what went on. Political, social, and economic debates were not set aside for the common good in wartime: they intensified as virtually every group with an axe to grind surged forth to argue that their cause had greater urgency than ever before. Propaganda, persecution, and misty-eyed patriotism tended to to paper over the unpleasantness (and this time of year it still does), but the fact is that some of the most divisive social and political debates in this country’s history occurred during the world wars. The generation of Canadians that fought them did not agree about why they were fighting, how they should fight, and what they wanted when peace resumed. And so it is positively incredible that some groups seem desperate to fix the meaning of remembrance after the fact, as if we could find consensus where wartime generations could not.
On Monday, though, we will hear about how the generation that fought the world wars fought “for us” and “for our freedoms.” But did they? Fight for us? Fight for our freedoms? Surely they fought for their world, and if they fought for freedom at all it was almost certainly not for our conception of freedom. We may grow misty eyed over the grave of a young man, cut down in his prime in 1918, but reflect that, were he typical of his generation, he would hold attitudes on matters of (for starters) gender, race, and sexuality that many of us would consider positively repugnant and indeed totalitarian today. What would a typical soldier, killed at Amiens, having died without ever having heard the radio or seen a colour photograph, think of the world a century a later? Think of our secular, smoke-free, multicultural, Canada? Think of women in Parliament, a black man as President of the United States, of same-sex and interracial couples, Breaking Bad, Twilight, and hip hop? Even the idea of a fully independent Canada might very well repulse him.
An eminent colleague of mine believes that, on November 11th itself, such questions of politics and history should go by the wayside and instead the day should be dedicated to the simple act of remembrance of those who fell. But what does this mean? Remember who? Remember what? And how? The act of “remembrance” – and in the context of Remembrance Day that almost always means "veneration" – is not simple. Consider even the question of "who": am I just remembering Canadians? And what does that even mean, prior to 1947? A great many of the 65,000 “Canadians” killed in the First World War weren’t born here, and probably didn’t think of themselves as Canadians at all. What about those who fought badly, were cowardly, or who even betrayed their comrades? And am I remembering our allies, too? The French? The British? The Americans? All their wars? Even the cruel and stupid ones? Even the Red Army, which brutalized its way across Eastern Europe, the spearhead of a totalitarian state whose cumulative death toll exceeded Hitler’s? And am I remembering the enemy fallen, too – remembering those who fought against “our freedoms”? Tread carefully here.
Consider, if you will, the rifleman in the infamous photograph above, about to gun down a woman and her infant child and then, presumably, the others, huddled defenceless, terrified, and weeping, perhaps begging for their lives. Very probably he was killed or maimed in subsequent fighting on the Eastern Front. Should I “remember” him tomorrow, merely because he wore a uniform and fought for a cause he believed in, even though that cause was objectively evil? Even though the success of that cause would have spelled the end of European civilization as we know it? Is his uniform some sort of totem that grants him moral absolution, regardless of his actions or the cause in which he served? I find the notion that it does positively fascistic – a sign that no small part of his ideological worldview has, in fact, not merely survived eradication, but actually emerged victorious from the war. I know some people reading this will disagree.
But that's my whole point. I object. I object, I object, I object. I object to the idea that there is single, simple meaning to “remembrance” – that there is a correct way to remember the wars that has been passed down to us from the generation that fought them. Above all I object to the idea that the worldview of the dead – even assuming that a unitary worldview belonging to the past generations could be located – must somehow determine our own. We impart meaning on the act of remembrance, we write history for our own purposes and for the benefit of our own society.
So there I will be, tomorrow, with a red poppy on my lapel and a white one in my heart, unsure about what to think of any of it. And perhaps that’s the real reason why I’m there – because of that uncertainty. Because if the liberal democracies succeeded in accomplishing anything in the world wars, it was in defending at least one part of the world from consensus.