Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Education or Propaganda? Why Remembrance Day Needs to be Re-Examined

CONTENT WARNING this post contains multiple references to and mentions of genocide, rape, the murder of children, and other disturbing topics related to war.

When I was a child, I was taught to observe Remembrance Day the way most children in Canada are. We would watch the ceremony in Ottawa live on TV, complete with solemn music, speeches about sacrifice and heroes and freedom, and the recitation of In Flanders Fields (a poem I memorized, because memorizing poetry was very much my thing).

But as I grew older, and as my political understanding grew along with my knowledge of history, I started understanding that what I had learned, the ideas I’d been inculcated with, were not merely neutral and apolitical, but a deliberate interpretation of history and current events, a deliberate shaping of individual and national identity. What I had been taught was nationalism, and once I saw that, it became startling to me how many people--many of them quite a bit older than myself--refused to engage in any deeper consideration of the whys involved in the wearing of a poppy. What are the stories that are being internalized, and should they really remain unquestioned?

I’ve started referring to November as Poppy Hell season. 

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

There's a reason I react this way to Remembrance Day in particular: you won’t see me write something negative about, say, D-Day commemoration ceremonies, or monuments to soldiers who died in WWII, or anything like that. Recognizing specific losses, from specific conflicts, is something I know can be really important for survivors and those who love them.

Remembrance Day is something different.

There are multiple reasons I feel this way. First, the idea that soldiers "fought and died for our freedom" needs to be examined. That is one of those phrases that is absolutely meaningless outside of its purpose as propaganda. Who's "us"? What "freedom" and for whom? Was the Korean war, the Gulf war, or the Afghanistan war even remotely for "freedom" for literally anybody, never mind Canadians? Of course not. Those were wars fought for oil, for political gain, to support allies engaged in imperialistic pillaging (and for the Canadian state to do some pillaging for themselves).

Many people bring up WWII when defending the valorization of soldiers and wars, because it's one of very few conflicts where it clearly was right to join. Most people who aren’t fascists know that fascism is extraordinarily dangerous, violent, and needs to be fought on all fronts. However, I am deeply disturbed by how simplistic the role Canada played has become in popular memory. Again, reiterating that I am very glad that Canada fought the Nazis, and that fascism is a true horror, I still think it's important people go far past the idea that the allied countries were benevolent liberators. It might make people feel good to think that way, but I think often instead about the Canadian state’s deliberate exclusion of Jewish refugees leading up to and during the war. How the Canadian head of immigration at the time bragged about how good he was at keeping Jewish people out. That of the 800,000 Jews who fled Nazi controlled countries in the 30's, Canada accepted under 5,000, leaving so very many who were turned away by country after country to die a horrifying death. I think about how popular eugenics was as a philosophy in North American governments and the UK. I think about how impressed by Hitler many European and North American leaders were, including prime minister Mackenzie King (he wrote in his diary of Hitler that "He smiled very pleasantly, and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes. My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man and his country ... his eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicated keen perception and profound sympathy (calm, composed) - and one could see how particularly humble folk would come to have a profound love for the man."). I think about how much world leaders underestimated the threat posed by a fascist Germany, because they liked fascism. A "strong Germany" was seen, for a while, as a good thing, until they started realizing that Hitler's expansionism threatened them too, not only the people they didn't give a shit about.

Considering that's the political context of the second world war, it should be clear that it was not fought for any noble reasons, it was just a war of self-protection, and in Canada's case a war to support Britain.

And going back to that phrase, "fought and died for our freedom," I want people to consider for a moment the conclusions that are reached when that's your starting point. If soldiers are heroes, who fight and die for something as noble as freedom, well then, if they're fighting somewhere, anywhere, it must be for freedom. If they're heroes, they must be doing good wherever they're sent.

Repeat it often enough, and people believe it without question. Soldier heroes fighting the good fight for our freedom! It's a cudgel used by the state to justify any conflict they choose to engage in. What? You say this war is bad? What are you, against FREEDOM? You claim war crimes were committed? How dare you! Don't you know that soldiers are HEROES?

It's a toxic, dangerous mentality that works to foster a nationalistic, militaristic attitude in the general population, where soldiers are above reproach, and wars, while regrettable, are fought for the “right” reasons.

Equally dangerous is the call to "support our troops." The "our" assumed in that is yet more phrasing that, when you actually look at it, is far more about playing on emotions than a meaningful statement in itself. How are they ours? What say do you and I have in what conflicts are waged? The closest we get is voting for the party that will possibly, if we're lucky, engage in less war. That's an utter perversion of the idea of "choice."

They're not our troops, whether we personally know any soldiers or veterans or not. They're a weapon of the state, most often used to prop up the imperialism of the US and UK, or to support the economic interests of Canadian corporations.

I suppose you could say that Remembrance Day isn't about the leaders and their reasoning, or why a war was entered into, it's about soldiers. But while I'm happy people fought the Nazis, I still think it's a dangerous flattening of a nuanced reality to name all veterans martyrs and heroes. Allied troops, including Canadians, participated in the rape of tens if not hundreds of thousands of German women after Germany surrendered. I saw a Facebook friend relating on this day that his grandfather, a WWII vet, had told him how Canadian troops shot Italian children in the street for sport. Wars don’t produce any heroes. They are universally a horror that lead to some complicated mess of victims, survivors, and perpetrators. The way so many veterans who survive end up changed forever by that incredible trauma is a tragedy. But they're still not heroes.

I also take a big issue with the messaging around Remembrance Day that treats war as tragic but necessary and unavoidable. As if war is a natural disaster, something no one has any power to prevent and must merely be endured. This lays the path for future violent conflict, when a populace is told again and again that wars just… happen. As if there aren’t hundreds, thousands of steps leading up to a conflict, countless choices to be made, options that might mitigate harm or even stop the course of war entirely. We can’t know what may or may not have happened had people made different choices in the past. But I do know that the way people talk about war now will lead to more war. As if it’s inevitable. As if that’s just the human condition. As if we have no power to stop it. As if the powerful don’t benefit immensely from ongoing conflicts (never forget that Canada is still selling arms to Saudi Arabia, who are almost certainly using them to murder Yemenis).

All Remembrance Day is, is an opportunity for the state to twist people’s understandable grief and horror towards a nationalistic agenda, to make sure their path towards any future wars they want to engage in or support remains smooth. It’s an empty gesture that pays lip service to “peace” while taking absolutely zero steps that could actually contribute to peace. Those who don’t perform patriotism by wearing the poppy and gushing piously enough about freedom and heroes are met with social censure, especially if they’re people of colour, as evidenced by Don Cherry’s tirade last year (thankfully, after years of racist rhetoric, he was finally fired). If this day was REALLY about peace, people would look at the horror of war without the comforting veneer of catchy propaganda phrases, and without telling stories that prop up Canadians' sense of a positive national identity. Instead we would look at history and current engagements with clear and critical eyes; immediately cease all sales of weapons and armoured vehicles; cease the support, either material or diplomatic, of British and American “interventions” in foreign countries; and make the legal changes necessary to require a referendum before this country is allowed to engage in any military conflicts.

With all the violence, at home and abroad, that the Canadian state has enacted and been complicit in, that still wouldn’t be enough. But it would be a start, a sign that this “remembrance” could actually be part of an attempt to do better, instead of the act of war-worshiping it is now.

When you know better, you have the opportunity to do better. It’s easy to repeat simple stories--Canada as peacekeepers (just don’t look too hard at the peaceful machine guns “our” soldiers are carrying), Canadian soldiers as liberators (who, along with the rest of the allies in WWII, sent “liberated” gay men straight from the concentration camps to prisons)--but these stories, as comforting as they might be, are half-truths and distortions. Children deserve truth from the adults in their lives, deserve people who will ally with them in learning that goes beyond the surface, in thinking critically and questioning the motives of the powerful. And far more so the world deserves people who do not repeat the same justifications for colonialism and imperialism, who do not support their country in it’s exportation of war.

I don’t have an irrational hatred of poppies. I just hate the way this holiday acts in service to violence.