It was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 that the armistice declaring the cease-fire the end of the war to end all wars was signed. Now each day in countries around the world that moment in history is kept alive through ceremonies honouring the soldiers who have fallen fighting in the various wars from that moment until now.
We still call it Remembrance Day in Canada, although what it is we are remembering has changed over the years. Initially it was to honour the generation that was devastated in World War One, but as each year has passed there have been fewer veterans of that war living; today there are only three survivors. Although the ceremony has been expanded to include the Canadian service men and women who have fallen in battle in the ensuing years, the Red Poppy worn in commemoration is specific to that war and those who fought in it.
When the inevitable happens and the last of three survivors passes, all that will remain will be the memory of those we are told not to forget about. But what is it we are supposed to remember? The politicians would have us remember their “supreme sacrifice” and that they gave their lives for noble causes. Sure we can do that, because most of those poor bastards probably believed that they were doing something of value and worth when they signed up to fight in the trenches.
But perhaps we should also be remembering that war to end all wars for the legacy it produced. Out of the ashes of World War One rose all the ingredients for the wars and nationalistic fervour that currently cause the world so much grief. Britain and France controlled the Middle East and although they devolved power to most of the Arab nations, Britain held on to Palestine after “liberating” it from the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
The near and far east were divided up between: Britain with India (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh), Afghanistan, Burma and other territories in that region; France controlled Indo-China, which included Vietnam and Cambodia, while the Dutch had Indonesia and surrounding countries. In Africa it was more of the same, save that the European masters also included Italy and Belgium among their membership.
The Russian revolution had started before the end of World War One, resulting in the Communist rulers of that country having negotiated a separate peace with Germany prior to the 1918 armistice. In 1919 British and American soldiers joined with troops of White Russians to try and overthrow the new regime but were unsuccessful and by 1925 Stalin had established himself as supreme leader.
Although direct confrontation between the West and the East was still a couple of decades away, the new government so scared the Western governments that they were willing to appease people like Adolph Hitler and Mussolini as they were seen as defenders against the socialist hordes. It wasn’t until they began their own moves against Europe in 1939 that they realized their own danger and almost didn’t live to regret their decisions.
In the years since World War Two we have seen almost every former colonial state become a hotspot of some sort or another. India and Palestine were both partitioned into distinct countries along ethnic lines in an effort to curb the very violence that continues to plague them today. In the African countries where colonial authorities had played ethnic tribes off each other in attempts to ensure their rule, their withdrawal resulted in horrible scenes of genocide and deprivation.
From the 1960s and the refugee camps of the Biafrans, through the horrors of Rwanda and the current situation in Darfur, that legacy continues. Europe saw her own share of “ethnic cleansing” with the death of Marshall Tito and the dissolution of Yugoslavia into its distinct parts. Serbians, Croatians, and Muslims began to slaughter each other indiscriminately for no other reason than ethnicity.
Since the end of the war to end all wars, the world has careened deeper and deeper into the embrace of armed conflict. Instead of remembering the horrors that accompany war we have been asked to remember a set of meaningless platitudes that do little too actually speak to the experiences of those we are claiming to remember.
Would we not be honouring their memory further if we were to use these occasions as opportunities to speak against warfare, instead of using them as fodder to justify current follies? In his powerful anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo creates a character who somehow survives losing his arms, legs, face, and ears. We spend the whole of the book inside Johnny’s head, sharing his memories and the creeping awareness of how sever his injury is.
When he finally figures out what happened to him, and how to communicate (using his head to tap out Morse code on his pillow he can spell out demands and questions) he requests to be used as a reminder of how awful war can be. He asks to be put in glass case and taken around to recruiting stations and political rallies – anywhere people are going to congregate – and have a sign hung on him that says this is war. The reaction to his request is pretty much what you would expect; they drug him and prepare to hide him away. All he wanted he says was to give people the opportunity to see what the flip side of honour and patriotism are, what the true nature of war is.
Remembrance Day in Canada is currently a means of honouring all those who have died in wars occurring in lands far away defending concepts and not their country. But if we truly want to ensure they did not die in vain, we must use this day to remind ourselves of the horrors of war so that we can work towards breaking the cycle of violence that started in August of 1914. Otherwise it’s all been a waste.