Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day is a fundamentally problematic holiday. On the one hand, it is meant to recognize the awfulness of war. On the other, it is meant to glorify those on our side who participated in wars. A truly pacifist holiday might be more easily palatable, but it would doubtless arise the ire of those who served in past conflicts and those who recognize the righteousness of at least some of them.

Wars can be divided into three categories:

  1. Those fought for reasons of immediate self defence (i.e. the Polish defence efforts when both Russia and Germany attacked at the outset of the Second World War).
  2. Wars fought for purposes that we can generally recognize as morally admirable now (the defence of the innocent).
  3. Wars fought for purposes we know consider immoral (territorial gain, the elimination of ethnic groups, etc).

What arises in response to this categorization is the question of to what degree those today can judge the wars on the past on the basis of contemporary ideas of morality. If Canada’s participation in the First World War was essentially in defence of imperialism, does our subsequent belief that imperialism is an unacceptable aim alter how we should feel about the war? Secondly, there is the matter of the individual evaluations of soldiers. If soldiers have no responsibility for assessing the rightness or wrongness of the war they are in, we are obliged to honour the Nazi machine-gun operator defending Juno Beach as much as the Canadians storming it. If soldiers are responsible for assessing the morality of the wars they participate in, we cannot simply honour them as a block.

When you move beyond crude patriotism to an ethic of equal human worth, it becomes very difficult to continue to accept war memorials at face value.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “Remembrance Day”

  1. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

  2. I question the true existence of your second category. I think that while some wars may have an arguable “moral” side, all wars are fought primarily for realist reasons, whether the war is viewed as necessary or not.

    Any moral argument to go to war is only an auxiliary to the political/economic/military dominance which is the true purpose of any given war (except in the case of immediate self-defense, which would also fall under realist terms). It serves to get the public all riled up about the war and willing to make sacrifices individually or collectively.

    Furthermore, the moral arguments for going to war are sometimes 1) extremely questionable (“let’s save poor Belgium? WTF, would you miss it???), 2) inaccurate (“Red Communist Alert! Let’s fuck over this Third World country for our freedom”), or 3) racist/identity slurs (“Let’s save Africa from TEH EVIL ARABS with our sweet, sweet, imperialism~~~!!!”)

    Red herrings.

    Peacekeeping may be an exception, although even peacekeeping is flawed in part due to the political worthlessness of some conflict zones on the global scale, making it again subject to realist terms. You could also argue that peacekeeping is fundamentally different than warmaking and so not part of those categories anyways.

  3. How are (1) and (2) different?

    Isn’t self defence against an immediate threat something that “we can generally recognize as morally admirable now?”

  4. I don’t believe its a sustainable position to assert that soldiers are personally responsible to assess the righteousness of the wars they fight in. Conscientious objection has to remain a fringe case. Otherwise, the strength of a countries armies is too dependent on its ability to convince them that the wars are justified, and then you just have a lot of local indoctrination. War is not democracy.

    I think you’ve missed the only unproblematic way of celebrating remeberence day – ignoring the larger conflicts as a whole, and celebrate individual acts of bravery, people dying to save their mates. (Like Jesus).

    But that isn’t problematic either,

    In Toronto I saw the Scottish colour guard march in kilts with pipes. Behind them, in less perfect rank and file, were “our boys”, i.e., the ones who are really going to get blown up protecting streets and oil rigs. It literally looked like they were being dragged along by the symbolic pipers. But they – they are, aren’t they? That’s what remembrance day is, the power of the symbolic to enable and justify the most horrific violence.

  5. Granted your criticisms, what about Fascism? Certainly you hate that a lot, and would be willing to kill 20 million Russian civilians over it. And some other people, I think the military death toll was 100 million, and maybe the civilian death toll was a lot more than that? Or maybe not.

    I honestly think WW2 only looks justified in retrospect, with the knowledge of the holocaust. Systematic racism is awful, but before it leads to genocide, it’s difficult to say eliminating (not really anyway) it is worth this many lives.

    But then, how can you value a life? Can you set it off against others, and even against the quality of others? This seems like a lost prospect.

    International ethics are not national ethics. Wars are not justified or unjustified. They are states acting in their interests. There is no UN, because membership is contingent on temporally contingent interests.

  6. All wars are fought primarily for realist reasons, whether the war is viewed as necessary or not.

    ‘Realism’ basically means that states are doing what is either in their interest as states or their interest as the group in charge of a state. Probably, this is a necessary condition for going to war. That said, we can distinguish between wars with relatively good outcomes and those with absolutely awful outcomes.

    How does the shape of the aftermath affect the ethical character of the conflict?

  7. War memorials are indeed a tricky business. Perhaps the last word belongs to one in Torre Pellice, near Turin: “To the perpetual memory of those who fell in all wars, and as a warning against the barbarities of violence”.

  8. On Rememberance Day

    November 11, 2009 by northernsong

    On Remembrance Day we are expected to honour soldiers. Soldiers who made individual sacrifices, for the sake of us – so that we can partake in the value(s) they defended. This is what is asked of us “in return” for their “gift”.

    But is this demand without political, contemporary interest? Are we expected to value the soldier’s sacrifice for the soldier’s sake – or is there another purpose, another goal in step with this demand to honour individual sacrifice?

  9. A day or two ago, one of this city’s newspapers rapped a local peace group’s white poppy campaign for civilian war dead, disparaging it as “a bunch of hippies giving big group hug (sic) and hoping for peace.” Editorial reaction elsewhere is nearly as churlish, leaning toward telling “the peaceniks” to butt out of the official red poppy drive. The Royal Canadian Legion is unamused. It apparently has the poppy copyrighted. And maybe poppyrighted.

  10. The members of the Ottawa White Poppy Coalition are probably too oblivious to be ashamed of themselves, but they should be nonetheless.

    Why, or how, these people came together with the goal of bringing in a white poppy to replace or augment the red poppies veterans sell on Ottawa’s streets is nothing short of a disgrace.

    Various members of the coalition have been quoted across the media explaining how they feel the red poppy “represents the nostalgia and romanticizing of war” while they say the white poppy better reflects the true meaning of Remembrance Day because it symbolizes a “non violent means of conflict resolution.”

    Neville Chamberlain tried resolving conflict by waving something white around back in 1938. It was called the Munich Agreement, and it didn’t deliver peace for his time any more than white poppies will today.

    What these politically correct fundamentalists in the white poppy coalition seem unable to understand is that Remembrance Day is about remembering the sacrifice of war. It’s not about a bunch of hippies giving each other big group hug and hoping for peace.

  11. “You should be shot.” because I wear my white poppy

    November 9, 2010 · By Charles Anthony

    The old lady at the check-out counter told me that I was the first person she ever saw wearing a white poppy. She asked me why I wear it and she said that I you should be shot. I told her that I have been wearing a white poppy proudly for a while now after I learned more about the history of war and how it seems to repeat itself.

    I took the liberty of calmly telling her what I thought.

    I told her that thousands of young men were sent off a hundred years ago to die in support of a lie. I told her that generations and generations of Canadians were taught that Canadians were under threat and that was a lie. I told her that Canadians were not under any threat in the First World War. I told her that I was tired of military history repeating itself. I told her that thousands of young women and families suffered grievously solely for financial gain of a select elite group of money grubbing liars. I told her that I have a lot of compassion for the military veterans and the ones who died in support of lies.

  12. “For Canada, that was the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, when Canadian soldiers captured a German position in northern France at a cost of 10,600 lives. Perhaps because it was the first time the four Canadian divisions had fought together, or because the position had previously been held against the British and French, it has since been seen as the moment when Canada leapt in spirit from colony to nation.

    “Historical narratives of violent pasts have always been useful instruments for politicians to legitimise existing orders or to try and forge national identities,” writes Maarten Van Alstein of the Flemish Peace Institute. The current Conservative government sees in Vimy Ridge a symbol of Canada as a “warrior nation” that it finds more congenial than the opposition Liberals’ emphasis on peacekeeping. On its 90th anniversary Stephen Harper, the prime minister, described the battle as a “spectacular victory, a stunning breakthrough that helped turn the war in the Allies’ favour”.

    Many historians disagree. The entry for Vimy Ridge in “The Canadian Encyclopaedia” describes the battle as “strategically insignificant”. Canada’s decisive contribution came the following year, says Jack Granatstein, a historian whose new book, “The Greatest Victory”, tells how the country’s corps defeated a quarter of Germany’s divisions on the western front during the war’s final hundred days. And though the war helped forge a Canadian identity it also revealed internal rifts, points out Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum. French Canadians fiercely resisted conscription, introduced in 1917.”

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