Sunday, 11 November 2012

Lest We Forget - Why Remembering The 'Great War' Matters Now More Than Ever

It's not often that I find myself agreeing with conservative Sun Media columnist Lorne Gunter. We tend to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum on most issues. And yet, I found myself nodding in agreement with his column today excoriating parents who pull their children out of Remembrance Day ceremonies for either religious reasons or a belief that such ceremonies glorify militarism and warfare. Lorne, I don't say this very often, but hats off to your thoughtful and cogent column!

In less than a year from now, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. While the Second World War continues to occupy prime real estate in our collective historical memory (thanks to its relative recentness and our continued fascination with its chief antagonist, Adolf Hitler), the 'Great War' - as it became known in its aftermath - is largely overlooked. After nearly a century since its outbreak, it is now in serious danger of slipping completely from public consciousness. Indeed there are very few people left who experienced it. On February 4 of this year, former Women's Royal Air Force mess steward Florence Green and the world's last surviving WWI veteran, died at the age of 110.

Field Marshal Haig, war criminal
The First World War broke out on July 28, 1914 and lasted until November 11, 1918. While eventually overshadowed by the Second World War in scale and bloodiness, it was at the time the most devastating military conflict in history, whose total death toll ranges from a low estimate of 15 million to a high of 65 million (if one includes Spanish Flu deaths as a direct consequence of the war). To put that in perspective, on the low end of the scale that's nearly one percent of the entire human population at that time, to nearly four percent on the other end of the scale.

It was also a conflict characterized by callousness and contempt for human life on the part of many of the military leaders involved. Such leaders included the criminally insane Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, a man whose zealously violent military tactics and sky-high casualty rate (including 60,000 of his own men in a single day at the opening of the Battle of the Somme) would earn him the nickname 'Butcher Haig'. At the time the scale of the conflict was unprecedented in human history and led to a radical reshaping of every society touched by it.

Fast-forward to the present, many people - particularly those of a liberal bent - find today's Remembrance Day celebrations an uncomfortable business. Remembrance Day, one sometimes hears, is merely a glorification of our military akin to the jingoistic 'Support Our Troops' cries that we're accustomed to hearing from right wingers critical of anyone who, say, questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq back in 2003 or calls for our troops to be removed from the line of fire in present-day Afghanistan. And indeed our current government here in Canada has proven to be particularly prone to over-the-top flag-waving military fetishism, a trend which I agree is worrying.

Nevertheless, I do believe that liberal-minded people are entirely wrongheaded in boycotting Remembrance Day - or pulling their children out of such ceremonies. For one thing, the old cliché about those who forget history being destined to repeat it seems to be as true now as it has ever been, and with World War I now pretty much as historically remote as the Napoleonic Wars, it seems all the more important that it be recognized for what it was. To my mind, any self-declared pacifist does their cause a profound disservice by denying their children this profoundly important reminder about the horrors of conflicts past - and why such military entanglements should be avoided at all cost.

Still not convinced? The First World War was one of modern history's most important catalysts of social change. It was a war driven first and foremost by greed on the part of European colonial powers, and as such the war represented the beginning of the end of European colonialism in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. It saw the overthrow of oppressive, out-of-touch monarchies in Russia, Germany, Austria and Turkey, as well as political liberalization elsewhere. In much of the developed world it saw massive improvements in women's rights, including female suffrage in Canada and elsewhere. In addition, the public health and welfare crisis that the war engendered was probably the single most important catalyst in the development of the kind of state-funded social supports that are the core of today's social democracy.

Flanders' fields are still littered with war remains.
Lastly, Remembrance Day is, above all, about the troops, not the countries and governments involved. It honours people who were forced to the front lines in Western Europe to fight in a futile war of attrition that, in the memorable words of Captain Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth, "would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed at home and shot fifty thousand of our men a week." No war in history has more graphically illustrated the destructive futility of warfare. The Second World War was a different affair altogether as there were bona fide good guys and bad guys, the latter being the German Nazi Party in the west and the imperial forces of Japan in the east. In the case of the First, the good guys were the soldiers on both sides of the front, the ones who famously declared an impromptu Christmas Truce in 1914 in direct contravention of high commands on both sides.

This, if nothing else, strikes me as well worth remembering. Feel free to criticize the military and its current entanglements. By all means criticize our leaders when they wax poetic about our country's 'proud military heritage'. Just don't deliberately keep your children ignorant of one of history's most cataclysmic conflicts. Do that and you're helping sow the seeds of future warfare.

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