Remembrance for victims and objectors

Every year, I see the militarism and nationalism that are linked to Remembrance Day, and every year I find them at least partly objectionable. The twentieth century should be taken as a comprehensive demonstration of the immorality of war, and how dangerous it is when people adopt nationalist and militarist ideologies. Putting on a poppy and saluting the people who fought for ‘our’ side in various conflicts seems to be missing the point.

Rather than celebrate the people who happened to fight on ‘our’ side, it seems more suitable to recognize that virtually all wars have involved appalling crimes committed by the soldiers on both sides of the conflict. We need only think about the firebombing of German and Japanese cities during the second world war (to say nothing of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) to realize that nobody comes away from major conflicts with an unblemished moral record. The only justification for such crimes is that it seemed necessary at the time to avert a still-greater evil.

Of course, many histories of war are written with retroactive justifications that do not accord well with a dispassionate examination of the historical evidence. Germany is the only country in Europe where the role of the state in perpetuating the Holocaust is unambiguously recognized and taught. People in many other countries were complicit. The trains to the death camps originated in many places, and everyone who was involved in the system bears some guilt for it. The same is true with regard to the atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – in Russia, and China, and Congo, and every other place where human beings have engaged in or tolerated the systematic abuse and slaughter of their fellows. I personally find it deeply troubling that there are so many people who remain unapologetic about the crimes committed by ‘their side’ in the course of wars in which they participated. ‘My country right or wrong’ is one of the most damaging and dangerous mindsets people can adopt.

I think it would be much more appropriate to devote Remembrance Day to marking the suffering of all the civilians who have been caught up in wars. That includes people who were the incidental victims of military campaigns, dying either directly from weapons or indirectly from starvation or disease. It also includes the millions of victims of the intentional genocides of the twentieth century and before – crimes that could not possibly have been committed without the willingness of human beings to commit acts of violence upon the orders of their states. We should feel disgusted and angry about how easily people can be convinced to fight for states that are undertaking such programs, and actively involved in building institutional and cultural defences against such things happening again.

In that spirit, I think it would also be suitable to use Remembrance Day to celebrate those unpopular figures who have had the courage to refuse to fight – and those who had the even greater courage to speak out publicly against unjust wars. Conscientious objectors are people who have had the moral insight necessary to realize what an appalling thing wars are, and who have had the personal courage to refuse to fight. They have done so even when that choice has been harshly criticized by the other members of their societies and frequently punished by prison or worse. This has sometimes been equally true for people who have taken a public stance against war, at a time when their societies have been progressing toward it. Soldiers may deserve praise for their courage, but so do people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a German clergyman who spoke out against Nazism and paid for it with his life.

The world would surely be a better place if more people refused to get caught up in the drumbeat and euphoria of war. People are dangerously quick to do so, and that is something we must all guard against.


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.

9 thoughts on “Remembrance for victims and objectors”

  1. Very good post. Your post reflects some of the feelings Ihave been having towards Remembrance Day. I have attended the traditional ceremony in Canada approximately 15 times. However this year I was not planning to. I do see the continued militarism and nationalism within it.

  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t defeat Nazism. That was accomplished by Soviet and Western troops killing Nazis.

  3. I wear a poppy for its victims, but don’t support war


    Last updated Friday, Nov. 11, 2011 11:30AM EST

    I drove by my old elementary school this week and on its sign out front there was a Remembrance Day message announcing a special assembly, along with the words: “Never forget.”

    It reminded me of a long ago November day in which I recited, as children do in that sweet but flat singsong voice, the poem In Flanders Fields at just such a school assembly.

    I also took a turn by my old high school, where a First World War memorial had recently been desecrated. I remembered, guiltily, how during a student strike (about what, I can’t remember) I had been hoisted up on top of it and I had defiantly raised my arm in the air, so full of conviction.

    Like most Canadians, my education about war has happened in fits and starts ever since childhood. We learn from family members who have experienced war, but perhaps not in a straightforward way. A friend told me recently her late Japanese-Canadian grandfather used to impress and delight his grandchildren when he smoked his pipe by blowing fumes out his ears. It was only years later she learned that he could do this because he had suffered perforated eardrums during the siege at Vimy Ridge. He never mentioned that part.

    We also learn about war from reading and viewing history, of course. Until watching a documentary this week, for instance, I’d never absorbed the horrific fact that bloody-minded generals sent troops into battle even after leaders of France, England and Germany had signed the Armistice treaty, but before the truce officially took effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. The generals knew full well that hundreds of those men would die. How callous and shocking and arbitrary is that? One of the very last soldiers to die in what was then optimistically known as “the war to end all wars” was a Canadian, George Lawrence Price, age 26, from Nova Scotia, who fell at two minutes to 11 a.m.

  4. Universal Soldier (song)

    “Universal Soldier” is a song written and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. The song was originally released on Sainte-Marie’s debut album It’s My Way! in 1964. “Universal Soldier” was not a popular hit at the time of its release, but it did garner attention within the contemporary folk music community. Sainte-Marie said of the song: “I wrote ‘Universal Soldier’ in the basement of The Purple Onion coffee house in Toronto in the early sixties. It’s about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.”

  5. “He’s five feet two and he’s six feet four
    He fights with missiles and with spears
    He’s all of 31 and he’s only 17
    He’s been a soldier for a thousand years

    He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain,
    a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
    and he knows he shouldn’t kill
    and he knows he always will
    kill you for me my friend and me for you

    And he’s fighting for Canada,
    he’s fighting for France,
    he’s fighting for the USA,
    and he’s fighting for the Russians
    and he’s fighting for Japan,
    and he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way

    And he’s fighting for Democracy
    and fighting for the Reds
    He says it’s for the peace of all
    He’s the one who must decide
    who’s to live and who’s to die
    and he never sees the writing on the wall

    But without him how would Hitler have
    condemned them at Dachau?
    Without him Caesar would have stood alone
    He’s the one who gives his body
    as a weapon to a war
    and without him all this killing can’t go on

    He’s the universal soldier and he
    really is to blame
    His orders come from far away no more
    They come from him, and you, and me
    and brothers can’t you see
    this is not the way we put an end to war.”

  6. It’s easy to romanticize war and reverse engineer its purpose. The Second World War — one of the most unambiguously moral wars in history — has fooled us into thinking there is honour in war itself. The Americans celebrate a conflict in which 600,000 died over a man’s right to own another man as evidence of romantic nationalism, when the Civil War should really be regarded as a five-year period of epic madness.

    The Great War was a needless enterprise. Launched like a negative billing option by a series of reciprocal agreements between inbred, tottering royal families, the war consumed nine million souls and accomplished absolutely nothing, save laying the pretext for an even bloodier future conflict. Canada was roped into the enterprise by virtue of our colonial status. Canadian men descended from those who had fled the stifling working class slavery of Europe to build new and free lives in a country without horizon, were sucked into the vortex of internecine conflict between the crowned heads they had left behind. It’s worth noting many enlisted only under relentless pressure from former warriors and dilettantes who presented dissenters with white feathers as the ultimate public gesture of emasculation.

    If anything, modern Canada should reflect on Vimy and our total First World War sacrifice as a national tragedy. Sixty-thousand Canadian men died in a war in which we had no real casus belli and which was largely administered by damnable incompetents. A generation of teachers, milkmen, farm hands, labourers, students and artists died on the field of battle, so hollowing out the population that many of the women they left behind would never marry. One hundred and seventy-three thousand returned home suffering from burns, chemical poisoning, amputations and traumatic stress disorder that would leave them depressed and spastic for the remainder of their lives.

  7. It is puzzling to me how in Canada the First World War is so venerated. We were not fighting for any great principles. We were fighting for a King and an Empire.

    In our history, I think we should honour our peacekeeping role the most. It is unfortunate that we are moving away from it.

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