Remembrance Day


in Bombs and rockets, Canada, Daily updates

After reading my friend Michael’s post on Remembrance Day, I find myself rethinking the event. I can think of three different potentially valid understandings of its purpose:

  1. The day as a formalized period of mourning for the specific people who died in the wars commemorated.
  2. A day meant to serve as recognition of the fundamental badness of war in general
  3. A day meant to encourage contemplation of the specific conflicts being commemorated.

The first and second are clearly somewhat contradictory. You can get around that by either saying that war in general is bad, but these ones were noble and important or that waging war is honourable if done defensively, and all of these conflicts were defensive. Another way out is to say that the actions of those who died, specifically, were honourable, regardless of whether the broader endeavour in which they were engaged was.

The most easily justifiable position is to avoid the automatic taking of a moral stance – in response to the occasion – but rather use the chance to reflect on the specifics of the conflicts themselves: how they arose, how they progressed, what they resulted in, and what the importance of all of that is now. Such an approach has the virtue of independence of thought, but probably rather misses the point of a commemorative ceremony of the sort that Remembrance Day is meant to be.

Regardless of the conclusions you reach, the balance you end up contemplating is one between large-scale strategies and small-scale sacrifices. Whether it’s Canadians being blown up by roadside bombs while trying to aid negotiations between the central government and provincial warlords in Afghanistan today or Canadians dying to test the German defences in Dieppe in 1942, such examples force us to think hard about the aims of our foreign policy, and the purposes for which armed force should be employed in the world.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. November 11, 2006 at 6:14 pm

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Tristan Laing November 12, 2006 at 7:34 am

1) Remeberance of the fallen soldiers, and tribute paid to those who put their lives and risk but remain alive, is the purpose of the ceremonies on remeberance day.

2) The righteousness of the conflicts in which they fought is of no importance to these ceremonies inasmuch as they are not corrupted by involvement of the current forces. The army ought not have any place to play in rememberance day – because they participation implicates the top brass in a positive position vis a vis the commemoration bestowed which is not intended in the logic of the event.

R.K. November 12, 2007 at 10:13 pm


Remembrance Day
November 11th, 2007

. December 8, 2013 at 8:11 pm

When Britons first stood silent for two minutes, in November 1919, their mourning was acutely personal. The next day’s Manchester Guardian described “a silence which was almost pain”. As that grief faded, the particular ceded to the universal. Since 1945 Britain and most other Commonwealth countries have dedicated Remembrance Day to all their recent war dead. In the public mind, it is also meant for all those who have fallen in war and, by extension, to denounce war’s horrors. Its official refrain is “We will remember them”; its popular one is “Never again”. As Hew Strachan of Oxford University puts it bluntly: “On Remembrance Day we’re not actually remembering anything.”

The uniquely depersonalising nature of the 1914-18 slaughter lends itself to this distillation: what response can there be to the first day of the Somme offensive, when 60,000 British soldiers were wounded or killed, except horror? Even so, there was more to the war than death—not least because nearly 90% of British soldiers made it home.

Those who fought in the trenches are popularly seen as naive victims, whose early enthusiasm for the war quickly turned to despair. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, which British schoolchildren learn, encourages this. Yet many, as their letters show, continued to support the war strongly. Nor, in the outpouring of grief that followed it, did many question whether it had been necessary. Over-simplifying history makes it less interesting. It also makes it harder to learn its lessons: including on when to fight and when to stop fighting, especially—as in Iraq and Afghanistan—after blood has been spilt.

. December 8, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Ms MacMillan’s core point is that the Great War was ultimately the product of individual choices—and the men who led Europe made poor ones. “Very little in history is inevitable,” she writes. Her capsule portraits reveal a cadre of weak leaders flummoxed by change, from the “easily swayed” Russian tsar to the “intense, self-confident and vain” chief of the Austro-Hungarian armed forces, Conrad von Hötzendorf. At the centre of the drama was the German Kaiser. To Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, he was “like a battleship with steam up and screws going, but with no rudder, and he will run into something some day and cause a catastrophe.” (The Kaiser, in turn, scorned the British as “mad, mad, mad as March hares”.)

“It was Europe and the world’s tragedy in retrospect,” Ms MacMillan writes, “that none of the key players in 1914 were great and imaginative leaders who had the courage to stand out against the pressure building up for war.”

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