Thursday, November 10, 2011

Of Pride and Patriotism

(or, why I try to ignore Remembrance Day and don't wear a poppy anymore) [pre-publication draft]

You'd have a difficult time finding someone who thought that a day of reflection and solemn recognition of the victims of war and fallen soldiers was a bad idea, or a waste of time. But Remembrance Day in Canada is a lot more than just that, and it always has been. I was once a patriotic, flag-waving lover like most youngsters, and enjoyed Remembrance Day, but over time have become reluctant to identify with remembrance traditions at all (including wearing a poppy), worried about endorsing what I perceived as its dangerous implicit ideological functions. Disparate social values and attitudes come together to define this holiday, that we observe (or celebrate, if you will). Deeply interwoven, these values and attitudes are also deeply contradictory.

“Nationalism, on my opinion, is nothing more than an idealistic rationalization for militarism and aggression.”
“[It] is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”        -Albert Einstein

Conferring Glory
Veterans Affairs Canada runs a program called Canada Remembers. Their website describes its mission, to help the public “come to understand and appreciate what those who have served Canada in times of war, armed  conflict and peace stand for and what they have sacrificed for their country.” You'll notice that this sentence doesn't focus so much on the people themselves, but rather on what they stand for. They go on about Canada’s reputation as a peace-loving country, and laud Canada’s ultimate reasons for fighting in wars: namely, to protect   the freedom of others, and the human rights of all. This, we are told, is what has motivated soldiers to sacrifice so much, and why we must pay our respects to their sacrifice.  As romantic an image as that all is, the history of the British Empire (and by extension, Canada) is far from one of glimmering benevolence. The blame for past wars is well shared, having historical origins in imperial struggles for dominance, and succeeded by 20th century nationalism. If we’re to have a realistic picture of past wars, we must acknowledge that the historical origins of conflict have rested in the deficiencies and vices of all sides.

“When you think of Canadian efforts in war and peace you come to realize that our desire to help was never motivated by greed, power or threats. It was in and of itself, a desire to protect human rights, all humans' rights.”   -Veterans Affairs Canada

Remembrance Day, Vancouver
I think it’s also fair to say that soldiers usually don't know why they are fighting, exactly, and that their motivations can’t be described as simply patriotic fervor. For example, what motivated a large share of enlistees in WWII was the simple prospect of employment, which was in very short supply after the devastation of the Great Depression[1]. I also think it’s fair to say that enthusiastic soldiers more often have a desire to simply rise up in defense of their nation, and care less about the overall narrative they are offered. This applies to soldiers of Nazi Germany, who undoubtedly saw their nation as oppressed by its neighbours, in the same way it does to our own. At the very least, it’s dubious to assume to know exactly what soldiers stood for and quite problematic to speak in their names. I imagine that if soldiers had sufficient insight to know the ultimate political reasons for their fight, they'd mostly be dismayed by the terrible waste of it all.

"Patriotism is a devotion to a certain place and people, contrary to nationalism which is inseparable from lust for power." -George Orwell

In 1926, the white poppy was suggested by the No More War Movement (of which Einstein was a prominent member) as an alternative symbol to dissociate the military aspect of remembrance. It was to add meaning of a hope for the end of all wars and recognize casualties of all wars, including civilians. The white poppy is covered occasionally by the Canadian press, lately noting that the Royal Canadian Legion considered suing the distributors of the symbol for violating their trademark. Many say that the red poppy is "already a symbol of peace" and that another symbol "denigrates remembrance". We may want to believe this is true, but given the nationalist nature of Remembrance Day celebrations and the state's official adoption of the poppy as a symbol, this is a bit optimistic. It's also worth noting that the poem from which the symbol derives (Flanders Fields by Lt. Col. John McCrae) could hardly be called a lamentation on war. Sure, it is a solemn tribute to the tragedy of soldiers' deaths--but only to be used as a call to arms to continue to take the fight to the enemy.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Lamenting war, as such, it does not. Cultural and literary historian Paul Fussell actually further described this stanza as “recruiting-poster rhetoric”, which, “first appearing in the early stages of World War I, would have, at that time, served to denigrate any negotiated peace which would end the war.”[2] In describing this "propaganda argument”, he said, "words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far."
Of course, we're all entitled to our own interpretations of symbolic meaning. For me however, the notion is a bit of a stretch.
Veterans Affairs was basically accurate: Remembrance Day’s primary purpose is about creating a national narrative to future generations about why wars are fought. So let's face it, Remembrance Day is not about remembering fallen soldiers. At least not primarily, at any rate. Actually I think it's fair to say that Remembrance Day would be best described as the celebration of Canada's war efforts and an assertion of Canadian identity. The paying of respects to fallen soldiers and veterans is a ritual within a much more important overall narrative which implicitly tells the inhabitants of Canada a story of our wars. That story is one of a great nation, motivated by noble ideals, which reluctantly sacrificed its brave, young soldiers in the name of peace, justice and democracy. We celebrate the great victories that those patriotic young men helped our proud nation achieve and recognize their selfless contribution.
This yearly ritual serves to rationalize in the minds of soldiers that what they did was a good thing and that it was not a waste of their lives and energies. More importantly, it is also a tale, to be taught and repeated to all Canadians, of what Canada is, what ideals and values it stands for, and what its role was in historical conflicts (all in a positive light, of course). It's hard for me to imagine this description being untrue. After all, I can’t imagine this yearly celebration, a long part of Canadian tradition and identity, being, say, a call upon all Canadians to reflect on the young men whose lives were cut short by wars of debatable value and necessity, and to recognize what a tragic waste of lives war always is. I imagine we would all find this emphasis rather demoralizing, particularly the veterans. And I think that's why we don't focus too much on it, and instead in our solemn dedications to our troops, note Canada’s moral superiority and imply that to support our nation at war, by itself, was a fine deed. I don’t think that to feature the more outspoken Canadian vets prominently, who forcefully call for no more war (and who might even criticize the state), would really be in the spirit of things. And that is why this spirit is a problem.

“You see, my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions, or its office holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, … To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags--this is loyalty to unreason, it is pure animal.”
- from “A Connecticut Yankee in king Arthur's court” by Mark Twain

For the Fallen?
The specific purpose of my article in expressing my strong dislike of how Remembrance Day is celebrated is not necessarily to pass judgment on past conflicts and our participation in them (for that would be beside my point). Nor is it intended to dismiss or trivialize the nature of effortful exertions and experiences of veterans in war. Quite the opposite, in fact. Precisely because we recognize the gruelling and arduous demands of war, in addition to its downright traumatizing nature, we must ensure that any remembrance of it should focus primarily on recognition of its victims and not its victors. I can't help but think that if we really wanted to recognize their ordeal, and do justice to the Canadian (or other) soldiers of the past, present and future, the majority of discussion on this day would reflect on the tragic waste that war is. In so honouring the soldiers whose lives were devastated or cut short, maybe we can protect our descendants everywhere from a similar fate. We should not allow celebration of nationalist militarism to in any way distract from this goal. Current Canadian remembrance practice tends to obscure the true nature of our war-fighting nation and what it stood for, and also to distort our role in history by framing our actions in terms of “us and them” (with “us” being the good guys, naturally).
To support nationalism is to support the very divisive force which has driven nations to hate and to make war on their enemies. I’m not hopeful that this approach will help our human race learn to co-exist in peace. It is time we stop indoctrinating ourselves and our children with simplistic and romantic caricatures of ourselves and of our past, and give them a more realistic picture of politics and war. It is the responsibility of all to prevent war, without loyalty to a nation, and without allowing our pride and investment in our own national identity to divide us from our extended human family.

Suggested reading:
White Poppy (Wikipedia) 
[1] "Six War Years", many personal accounts of the war, through interviews. Certain notions of how patriotic people felt or why they became soldiers are challenged by some interviewees.
“Canada Remembers” - description of the program - Some highlighted fallacies of the “Canada Remembers” program

Author’s note: In sharing my reasons to not wear the red poppy, I acknowledge that to some it is deeply, personally meaningful. I don’t mean to denigrate the significance of any individual’s feelings which may be related to it.