Sunday, November 14, 2010

The persistence of (disputes over) memory

I remember the wars of the past and the war we have chosen to fight today  in Afghanistan. I remember the wars that came before that. I remember how one war frequently leads to another, the compromises made for peace in one generation leading to the failure of peace in the next. What aware person with a mind and conscience can forget?

I remember all year long. Every time I participate in the political process, I remember that people have put their lives on the line for my right to do so, and whether or not I believe their sacrifice produced my freedom, I know they thought it would, and I remember and honour their willingness to make it. I remember the men and women who endured the wars, who went to fight and gave up their youth and the soundness of their bodies and the peace of their minds, and I honour the choice they made to do that for all of us, even if I don't agree with the specific cause they fought in.

And at the same time, I face the paradox that confronts everyone who remembers and honours those who fought for their country. As Jimmy Carter rightly said, the necessity of a particular war does not make war any less of an evil. In 1939, Canada and Britain may have had no choice but to fight, and the young men of this country who flocked to the colours then have my full measure of gratitude. But they would not have had to go if Hitler had not persuaded young Germans to flock to the colours of blood and night. Good people only have to fight for good causes because very bad people can deceive others into fighting for monstrously bad ones. Does our memory, our gratitude to the men and women who died depend on our opinion of their cause? If so, should the Germans relegate their World War II veterans to a past they feel nothing but shame for? If not, then what do we really celebrate about the men and women who went to war, and should we temper our gratitude to them with an awareness of the terrible ease with which very bad people can make evil use of the noble impulse to sacrifice?

Changes in technology have forever changed the nature of war, and the way we remember wars, warriors, and soldiers has not changed to keep up with it. We know, as an abstract truth, that the hope and expectation that most of the generations of the past entered wars with, the hope of a final victory, we can no longer expect. As Gwynne Dyer put it, if a nation with a nuclear option ever started to lose a war in a final way, then it would resort to its nuclear arsenal and everyone would end up dead. Europe would lie in ruins before the Russians ever again marched through Berlin, or the Germans marched through Paris. But that has to change the way we look at war; if war, the carnage and sacrifice on the battlefield, can no longer shape history, then what does? And how do we celebrate everyone that makes our history and passed on a heritage of freedom?

All these questions turn around one other hard truth: peace and freedom have never come without a cost. War, as our  parents and grandparents knew it, has come to an end, and our survival depends of recognizing and accepting that. But the end of war does not mean an end to sacrifice. Brave men and women will still need to put their lives on the line for things that matter. More and more of those men and women will never wear a government uniform, but they will fully deserve our thanks and remembrance. How, when, and where we choose to remember will remain a point of contention for some time. Canadian, British and American merchant sailors in the Atlantic convoys suffered together with their naval counterparts and made sacrifices that undoubtedly made as much of a contribution to winning the war as any military person, yet they did not receive official recognition and veteran status until over 40 years after the end of the war. Even today, the day specifically set aside in Canada to remember the sacrifices of merchant sailors, September 3, does not get the public attention that November 11 has.

Maybe at some future Remembrance Day ceremony we will see peacemakers and peacekeepers, those who struggled for justice and those who fought for their nation standing shoulder to shoulder with all people whose valour and endurance made our world possible. Someday, the world may remember Americans such as Ernest Evans, Jean Donovan and Tom Fox, Canadians like Smokey Smith, and Norman Bethune together as brave men and women who gave their lives for justice and a better future for everyone, without making distinctions of uniform, rank, or status. But that day has not come yet.

Today a trademark, that most mundane, commercial, and, oddly, civilian of issues muddies the waters. Since 1948, the Royal Canadian Legion has had control of the poppy trademark granted to them by a special act of Parliament. Since at least the 1980s, they have engaged in legal scuffles with people who have attitudes to war and memory different from their own.Obviously, I disagree with the Legion here; I find the use of trademark law in an attempt to shut down political speech you disagree with highly inappropriate, and I consider it even more inappropriate to try to couple our willingness to remember and honour those who died in wars past to a particular view of war and peacemaking today. That view, that soldiers created our freedom and that only soldiers guard it, will fade into history with the time when wars could end in unambiguous victory, The soldiers who come home from Afghanistan will come home to praise and celebration, but they will almost certainly leave behind a country in turmoil and a still active Taliban. Freedom from the intolerance the Taliban and other extreme religious movements exemplify will not come from military action. To remember and honour the soldiers who gave their lives so we and others might have a better future, we will, in the long run, have to accept this and incorporate it in our way of remembering.

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