Celebrating soldiers, celebrating peace

The problematic nature of Remembrance Day has been covered twice here already, in 2006 and 2007. My question for today is this: would it be better to have two separate holidays, one of which is unambiguously pacifist and committed to recognizing the horrible character of war, and another in which the sacrifices of veterans are marked?

The first occasion would mostly be about civilians, since theirs is the primary experience of contemporary war. The second would still need to address difficult questions about why sacrifices on one side were more noble than those on the other, as well as what kind of conduct we should consider acceptable or laudable in war.

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.

12 thoughts on “Celebrating soldiers, celebrating peace”

  1. If we agree with the Nuremburg assumption that “doing something because you are ordered to”, is not in itself a virtue, then we cannot evaluate, and therefore can’t praise, the individual actions of soldiers without first adjudicating the question whether war is ever justified, and whether the state’s existence is justified. Or, we need an argument to prove the state needs no justification (but then we have the “pirate ship” problem of contractualism).

    If we don’t grant this question priority, then we are granting the state tacet consent to act before ethics, in other words, to act and by its actions determine every possibility for ethical interpretation. This tacet consent is perhaps the strongest when we allow the state to establish specific dates and sites and ceremonies for remembrance and commemoration of specific acts or kinds of acts, or events or kinds of events, which concern primarily warring between states.

  2. How can the civilian event avoid difficult questions?

    What about the civilians who built bombs and tanks, or the ones who worked on the atomic bomb?

    All public considerations of warfare involve difficult moral judgments.

  3. When we celebrate soldiers, I don’t think deliberation is the virtue we are applauding.

    Condemning soldiers because war is wrong seems a bit like condemning swimmers because water is wet.

  4. Tristan,

    I think the question of how official state remembrance is carried out is an interesting and important one.

    One of the more objectionable elements is the lumping together of all wars as being in pursuit of the same values: usually ‘freedom.’ To say that all veterans fought for freedom, particularly freedom within Canada, seems factually incorrect. It glosses over the fact that we go to war for more and less admirable reasons, and that the outcomes of those wars have not been universally successful.


    I agree that civilians also have an ethical stake in war, especially in the period of industrial warfare. One important question is the degree to which particular facilities (such as factories) need to be supporting military activities before they themselves can be considered military targets under the laws of war.

    A modern account of the ethics or warfare would need to consider civilians as active agents in the hostilities, as well as victims of deprivation and violence.


    I agree that sacrifice and bravery are generally what is being celebrated. That being said, it seems like a dated form of ‘hero’ ethics, poorly suited to the character of modern conflict.

  5. Armistice Day
    By Davi Ottenheimer on Security

    Veteran’s Day was once dedicated to the memory of lives lost in The Great War. President Wilson’s proclamation in 1919 established the foundation for an American holiday:

    “To us in America, the reflections of armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations”

  6. If there is one lesson to be taken from WWI and WWII, it is that militarism and nationalism are very dangerous.

    Why, then, do we honour the memory of those who died in the wars through ceremonies that promote both militarism and nationalism?

    There is a section in The History Boys that explains it well:

    Tom Irwin: “The truth was, in 1914, Germany doesn’t want war. Yeah, there’s an arms race, but it’s Britain who’s leading it. So, why does no one admit this?”

    [approaching a war memorial]

    Tom Irwin: “That’s why. The dead. The body count. We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault cos so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way if forgetting something than by commemorating it. “

  7. Haven’t read the other comments but the mixture of your three elements in one day is perhaps necessary to underline that, other than intellectually, you can’t separate the elements out so neatly.

  8. I’m not sure all those things can be separated, either. I used to have a button (alas now lost) which had a picture of a poppy and read “For every woman raped or killed in any war”, which struck me as the necessary part missing from the usual celebration of veterans – that war is about machismo, that it involves sexism & male violence against women at home and abroad, and that virtually all heroes are also villains.
    Part of me hopes that Remembrance Day fades out as a tradition once the WW1 and WW2 vets are dead. If it doesn’t, then IMHO the task of organizing the day’s events should be turned over to feminists; I’m pretty sure something really interesting would come out of that.

  9. The public generally seems quite hostile to anything that smacks of not respecting veterans. Consider, for instance, how politically dangerous it was in the United States to say anything negative about John McCain’s war record.

    Presumably, that perception is quite different in states (like Germany and Japan) where the public lesson of the world wars has been shame about the actions of their armed forces.

  10. History Boys: 10 points.
    Sarah: 10 points.

    I observe Remembrance Day because for me it really is about remembering history-attempting to get my mind around what actually happened rather than what my state propaganda wants me to imagine happened. It’s also about remembering that there hasn’t been a god damn day of peace on earth throughout the 20th century, and a reminder to enact some personal responsibility for a better way.

    I support having one Remembrance Day, except not one that is co-opted by political leaders, heroic posturing, and other agendas. While WW1 veterans have already died out and WWII ones will soon, for me it’s about acknowledging that history happened to real people. I wish it was marked with public debates and soapbox readings of Kurt Vonnegut and personal memoirs rather than bullshit memorials (such as the statue in Ottawa) that commemorate dead teenage boys with depictions of live full-grown men fighting a just cause.

    Belgium: would you miss it? More than 65,000 Canadian boys?

  11. Pingback: Remember

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