I don’t want to trust a seventeen year old memory very far, but I think it went something like this. I was watching a debate on CBC or CTV about Canada’s involvement in Kosovo. They assembled a panel: a journalist, somebody from a peace group, an RCAF veteran from the Legion (for some reason), and finally a political scientist, because in a debate it’s a good idea to have one person who might know what the hell is going on. I don’t recall much about the debate, but one thing is lodged in my memory. In rebuttal to the one panelist’s opposition to Canada’s participation in the air campaign, the veteran said, “This young lady should go watch the first twenty minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan to learn what soldiers sacrifice for freedom.”
This might seem like a non-sequitur and a particularly incoherent one at that, but au contraire. Have Canadians had any societal debate in the past century that hasn’t witnessed an effort by one side or another to imbue their position with the sanctified suffering of The Fallen? Back in the day, when I read actual newspapers (and worked for one) I used to keep a clip file. In it were examples of people deploying mawkish memories of our own “Greatest Generation(s)” into debates over everything from multiculturalism to same sex marriage to educational reform to indoor smoking bans, as if the worldview of the dead – and especially the war dead – were entitled to hold dominion over the living forever. And it happens in debates over history, too. We needn’t look far for examples of historians or historical institutions who have been bullied into silence by people that Paul Fussell called “the loony patriotic.”
I’ve written before about my growing unease with Remembrance Day, and especially about the day’s tendency to blur the distinction between commemoration and historiography. Historiography is evidence based, skeptical, and provisional in its conclusions; commemoration is subjective and emotional. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t mind so much, if it were only for a single ceremony and for an hour. One doesn’t go to a funeral and expect to hear the unmitigated truth about the departed, after all. But when have our circumstances ever been normal? Not since September 2001, to be sure, fourteen years in which we’ve seen the Western powers engaged in perpetual low-level war, turning the world upside down and killing – even if not intentionally – far greater numbers of innocent people than ever were killed on 9/11.
“Oh, stop,” I’m told. “The day’s not about that. The day is simply about remembrance, not politics.” Oh, please, I reply. What does that even mean? Remembering is not simple – not cognitively, not socially, not historically, and remembering for commemorative purposes complicates it still further. It is most decidedly not apolitical. Commemorate what? Those who fought for freedom? Tread lightly, friends, around so subjective a term: not many of those who went to war in 1914 or 1939 shared your conception of freedom. Victory, then? So am I to exclude the enemy, many of whom were, to quote Bertrand Russell, “fellow sufferers in the same tragedy as our own”? Commemorate all combatants, then? But that would include perpetrators of hideous war crimes, and you’ll forgive me if I choose not to spare a moment to reflect on those who served that the Holocaust might continue. For starters.
Okay. Maybe you need a moment to “just remember” (whatever that means) and you can cut through the cognitive dissonance. Maybe you don’t cringe when you hear “fought for our country” when you know damn well that sometimes they fought for our government; maybe you don’t clench your teeth when you hear “fought for our freedom” when you know that sometimes they categorically did not. So, do what you need to on November 11th. Commemoration, like funerals, are about the living, after all, and the stories we tell ourselves so that we can carry on. I’ll go, and reflect on victims of war and especially on those who died to defeat enemies for whom martial virtues were the only ones worth having. But I’ll also reflect that, too often, our own commemorations tread too close to that terrain, terrain where there is an implicit contempt for civilian life; terrain where there is no distinction between serving one’s country and serving one’s government; terrain where it is assumed that there is an inherent nobility in military service, regardless of the cause in which one served; terrain where, as C.P. Stacey put it in a different context, the golden haze of historical romance combines with the fog of war to reduce visibility to zero.
“Support our troops” doesn’t mean support every stupid and immoral thing that our government wishes to do with them, and people who can’t understand the difference shouldn’t be allowed to play with soldiers.