Remembrance Day is a holiday that always leaves me feeling ambiguous – to say nothing of slightly guilty about my ambiguity.
On the one hand, I have no trouble extending my respect to soldiers. They do a dirty and dangerous job that is often essential. The fact that, in Canada, they do it with inadequate equipment and wages that hover around the poverty line only makes them more worthy of recognition. For some, desperation might play a part in enlistment, but considering the conditions, I figure that a sense of obligation and loyalty must frequently play a large part in their career choices.
Nor do I have any trouble remembering history. If alternate worlds exist, there are a good many in which I am a historian, and, in this world, history forms a large chunk of my reading. I am constantly exasperated at how little sense of history the average person has, so an event that encourage people look back at the last ninety years seems worthwhile to me. I only wish more holidays encouraged such backward gazes.
On the other hand, the emphasis of Remembrance Day has changed greatly since I was a child. When I was growing up, the point of the holiday could have been summarized as “Never again!” I’m not sure of the intention of that message, but I took that to mean that we should do everything possible not only to avoid global conflicts like the one that originally inspired the holiday, but also to avoid wars altogether. I was proud that I lived in a country that focused on peace-keeping, because that seemed to be the enlightened, modern view.
However, in the last couple of decades, respect for soldiers seems too frequently to have become respect for the policies that send them abroad. The message I hear is that if you support the troops, you must also support the Canadian presence in Afghanistan, and that, if you don’t, you are some sort of hypocrite. That seems a false dichotomy to me, and I regret that the day has stopped being a reminder of what we want to avoid and has become instead an extension of government policy.
Along with this new propaganda has come the sort of rhetoric that I have always despised. The rhetoric uses words like “sacrifice” and “honor.” Soldiers do not die; they “fall.” To hear this new propaganda, you would think that soldiers did not simply accept the risk of death, but rush to it with the eagerness of Monty Python’s Kamikaze Scotsmen, eager to show their patriotism by making the supreme sacrifice. Personally, I suspect that they are just unlucky, and no matter how great their idealism, would probably prefer to still be alive.
Such rhetoric seems false at the best of times. Far from being a way to express respect, it seems a way to avoid really thinking about the gory details to which you are alluding. However, it seems even more false when applied to the subject of war
.Read the war poetry of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen – people who had fought in the front lines, and knew what they were talking about – and you quickly find that this is exactly the sort of rhetoric that they railed against. It is the rhetoric that lured the generation of men who were young during World War One to be butchered by the incompetence of their generals. Now, though, “Lest We Forget” no longer seems to include remembering the danger of such rhetoric. But I do not forget, and I greatly resent the fact that it is creeping back into fashion.
I am sure that some readers will damn me for these sentiments, and doubt my sincerity. But, despite the tendency of mainstream media to reduce everything to an either-or question, I’d like to think that a mixed perception is still possible.
Respect for the average soldier is not synonymous with jingoism, and the sooner we separate them, the better. Until we do, Remembrance Day remains a holiday that I can only partly support.