What should we remember?

Remembrance Day leaves no room for contemplation amidst its push for patriotism

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become increasingly ambivalent to Remembrance Day. 

That’s not to say I take issue with setting aside a day to remember and contemplate those who risked everything in the name of what they thought was right. Quite the contrary; we should take more than 15 minutes every year to engage in the sort of remembrance and contemplation that Remembrance Day exists for.

Unfortunately, the day itself has little to do with such contemplation. There’s no room for questions about whether what our progenitors fought and died for was indeed right and just—that’s now plainly assumed. 

Remembrance Day has become nothing more than a time for uttering platitudes soaked in ardent nationalism and blind veneration of military force.

I witnessed one of these unabashed displays at City Park in Kingston a few weeks ago. 

The Master of Ceremonies was an elderly gentleman with a gruff and guttural voice, and a central part of his program was his loose recitation of a poem often attributed to Charles M. Province. That poem extols the primacy of the soldier thusly:

“It is the soldier, not the reporter, that has given us freedom of the press

It is the soldier, not the poet, that has given us freedom of speech

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, that has given us freedom 

to protest

It is the solder, not the lawyer, that has given us the right to a fair trial” 

After this reading came that of the bishop, who admonished us to pray for the men who died so that we may live, and who died in the name of holy “truth and righteousness.” We were to pray for men who took life, and who in turn had theirs taken, all with God on their side.

I found this disappointing, but hardly surprising. 

It was, however, profoundly disquieting that these statements were put forth to a crowd that included several elementary schoolchildren. I couldn’t help but think that these children would grow up believing that all our freedoms were won at gunpoint’ that the actions of journalists and poets and protesters and lawyers are deservedly secondary to the actions of soldiers and that it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.

When the moment of silence came, my thoughts turned to the men, many of them younger than me at the time, who served in the First World War. 

Perhaps my discomfort is best summed up in a book I read called Warrior Nation by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. One of its major themes can be paraphrased as follows: when we make every soldier into a hero, we make all their actions heroic, and we find ourselves unable to debate the merits both of past wars and of sending our armies into combat again.

Thinking back to the schoolchildren, we hope they will become tomorrow’s active participants in democracy. 

But by consistently telling them that freedom is always born out of violent conflict, and by giving them such a peremptorily one-sided picture of how war, nation, and freedom are intertwined, we do them a significant disservice. 

We make democratic participation more difficult and less likely for them. And in consistently feeding the same lines to adults, we essentially do the same, for we circumscribe the important discussions we ought to now be having.

I leave you with the ever-poignant words of Bob Dylan:

So now as I’m leaving,

I’m weary as hell.

The confusion I’m feeling,

Ain’t no tongue can tell.

The words fill my head,

and they fall to the floor:

That if God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war. 

Nik Papageorgiou is a Queen’s ArtSci '14 alumnus.
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