Perhaps it is my overly vivid imagination, but Remembrance Day is still a “holiday” that rather gets to me.
Here in the Yukon it is still observed as a “day off”, and I’m oddly grateful – not as you might expect, for the extra day to get things done, but because I really do find myself reflecting on the notion of armed conflict.
Recently, I was reviewing quite a lot of material for a Socials 11 course, the content of which covers both of the so-called “Great Wars”… so called, of course, because it was thought that the drastic changes in technology which in many ways (it appeared) had changed the face of combat forever, would make violence of that scale unthinkable in any future beyond the conflict itself.
Not only was the technology of war machines and deadly substances and tools vastly different but these were some of the first times when the stark realities of the war could be captured and shared with those were not present (although that was scrupulously avoided by propaganda mongering governments that desperately needed bodies to send into the theatres of war). We have some of the first viscerally horrifying still images, silent films and audio recordings from this time, documentation of what it was like to ‘go over the top’, and be cut down moments later. Recall that this was decades before access to visual and audio media was commonplace, and certainly long before access to graphically violent images was widespread.
After a 7 hour day of reviewing old film footage of WWI, I felt incredibly worn. It struck me, again and again, that the faces I was seeing on the digital screen in front of me were not actors in a Speilberg film, or in a public broadcasting dramatization (although many of them were from CBC). The photographs and letters were of real men – boys – who had been led to believe that there was a pressing need for them – personally, individually – to go and fight a battle that they might not survive. It struck me, too, how the shape and lines of the faces changed. While I realize that obviously directors and editors choose what you see when you watch a “documentary” the reality is that there was a plethora of images of gaunt men with grimly set mouths, to juxtapose against the earlier images of round cheeked kids certain of their fortitude and inevitable indestructibility.
I learned new things that day, too. That (at least in WWI) Canada put deserters to death, as per the policy of Great Britain. Australia alone of the Commonwealth countries refused to comply with that policy (recall that this was prior to the Statute of Westminster, and so even though there were Canadian commanders etc. on the field of battle, the lines of command were subject to the will of old Haig et al). Not only was a deserter put to death, but the firing squad responsible for taking his life was made up of the men of his own section or platoon and members of his company or battalion (depending on who was available and not at the Front, fighting) would be forced to walk by afterwards to observe the results of trying to flee. Court marshals were apparently swift, lacking representation, especially for the non-commissioned soldiers, and the results a foregone conclusion. Worse, the shame brought to families (if they were notified) was extended to not allowing the soldiers’ names on memorials later on. There was no room in the military mind – in the field, at that point – for ‘shell shock’, or at least shell shock was no excuse to flee.
I have veterans in my family and among family friends. They have said that, if anything, memories and dreams of the wars have gotten sharper and more difficult to bear, over time. A few, who have slipped, with age, into dementia and Alzheimer’s seem particularly prone to being trapped in vivid and vicious memory loops.
After one day of just watching images, hearing letters, and imagining all of this – I was aching with weariness and numb and horrified by things we do to each other, over and over and over again.
And we keep doing it.
Shortly after I got to the Yukon, I attended our bi-annual Teacher’s Conference. One of the keynote speakers was Roméo Dallaire. If you have not read his books, Shake Hands With the Devil and They Fight Like Soldiers But They Die Like Children, I recommend them whole heartedly but they are profoundly distressing. Profoundly not only in their depiction of the horrors we perpetuate on each other, but on the callous disregard for human life that characterizes the behemoth that is the international political machine – a legacy from the time after The Great Wars.
Roméo Dallaire’s point was simple – the world is changing, and if our expectations do not change along with it, if we do not see clearly, with compassion and with understanding, and if we cannot see that it is not technology, not really, that has changed the world but rather HOW we think and therefore what we can and are willing to do with technology (“headware” vs. “hardware” to quote the book Literacy is NOT Enough, 21st Century Fluencies Project – look it up!). The team that Dallaire led into Rwanda was blindsided not by technology but by the fact that the war that was being enacted all around them wasn’t being played out under rules he – a general trained in the European and North American style, had experience with. It was tactically guerrilla warfare, it was emotional terrorism of a people on their own people as well as on the representatives of international agreements never agreed to by the people who eventually used machetes on each other until blood actually ran – like streams – down paved streets, and bloated bodies actually damned up entire rivers.
Yes, I take the time on Remembrance Day to think about war, and armed conflict and human depravity. I think of the faces of the boys I’ve seen in those pictures of WWI and WWII, of the emaciated bodies of Holocaust survivors and soldiers alike. I think of the Cellist of Sarajevo (the real man, not the lie Galloway made of him in the novel) and of Africa’s ongoing Great War that we seem to forget so quickly every time we’re reminded of it. I think of vets from Vietnam who have been denied assistance because, well, that wasn’t a “real” war, and I think of the ways in which Korea and Vietnam and Cambodia and their people were deeply wounded and continue to live with those wounds, still.
Yes, I wear the poppy. Not because a Canadian wrote a stirring poem. I wear it because for a few days a year, for just ONE day a year, I think it is vital that we make a deliberate effort to Remember that millions the world over have died in armed conflict – and it’s usually not those who stood to gain, usually not those who sent out the call to arms and usually not – ultimately – for the reasons asserted in the propaganda.
If we don’t Remember, how much worse might our indignities towards each other continue to become?