Sunday, 10 November 2013

Poppies, Politics and the War for Remembrance

It has become an almost inescapable reality that the history of Western states is bound up with their military heritage. The degree to which this is the case waxes and wanes as popular sentiment shifts and power changes hands. Britain, France and Germany are dotted with monuments to the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while the history of the United States is, perhaps more so than most other states, bound with war through the revolutionary origins of victory over its imperial masters in Britain. Closer to home, most cities in Canada are likely to have a Cenotaph or some memorial to the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918, subsequently expanded to include the Second World War, the Korean conflict and, most likely, expanded again to acknowledge peace keeping missions and the recent war in Afghanistan.


Eventually memory fails and certain events are firmly etched in history and not the popular imagination. Distance from the events has allowed once popular wars – the Napoleonic War in which three hundred thousand Britons died – to be analyzed in more detached and dispassionate manner. Canada, no stranger to armed conflict despite its relative youth and geographic isolation from most of the major global conflagrations, is in desperate need of a more detached and dispassionate analysis of its military past. The discourse and ‘official’ narrative trotted out at Remembrance Day is a clear indication that this is the case.

One of the reasons for this is the simple fact that, while most of the Remembrance Days of my childhood were firmly rooted in the past, recent observances – particularly after 2002 – have been brought firmly into the present and a reality of ongoing war. In short, the observance has become inherently and problematically political and has become deeply ideologically loaded.

Two recent examples come to mind. First, in 2012 Quebec Premier Pauline Marois – who happens to be a separatist – came under fire for modifying her poppy ( Royal Canadian Legion) with a Fleur-de-lis pin in remembrance of Quebec veterans of Canada’s conflicts. Detractors claimed that Marois was making a decidedly political statement. The Legion was clear that the symbol is a “Canadian Legion symbol” (!) and, as such, should not be modified with any other symbol.

The response was decidedly political and, in essence, paints a national remembrance in a decidedly Anglophone tone, one that reduces the Quebec contribution while extolling the pan-Canadian (and English) version of the country. In short, it utilizes solemn remembrance as a tool against Quebec nationalism. That fact that Marois continued to wear the poppy as instructed speaks volumes to the genuine nature of her action. The fact that poppies are commonly modified – by veterans themselves – to include a maple leaf or a Canadian flag indicate that the kerfuffle was, again, more about Quebec nationalism than a perceived slight to veterans.

In 2013, another firestorm erupted over the distribution of white poppies intended to symbolize peace and promote peace activism. These poppies, distributed for free by activists and students, were decried by the Legion – which again sought mostly to protect its intellectual property – and by a host of individuals, particularly on the right, claiming that the protesters had no idea what the poppy stood for and that it was disrespectful to veterans to wear it. In a monumental failure to grasp the basic precepts of irony, detractors reminded these students that veterans fought for their freedom.

If the poppy is to be a truly national symbol – and not simply a piece of intellectual property – and Remembrance Day a national event, it should be open to interpretation. That one group should have a monopoly on the symbolic is ludicrous, particularly as these symbols are now used in the present to promote a particular image of the country (the Conservative view) at the expense of other interpretations and to provide political cover for an unpopular imperial war abroad.

Growing up, Remembrance Day was essentially a day to mark the two world wars. It has subsequently been expanded back in time to honour all soldiers who fought for Canada – even if, as in 1812, the war was fought mainly by British regulars and by militia who were, first and foremost, British subjects – and conveniently speeds past the aberration Canadian participation in British imperial exercises like the Boer war – and ending with those deployed in Afghanistan and (one assumes) those who dropped bombs on Libya(ns).

It is one thing to recognize the contribution of soldiers – whether or not you agree with their wars is another matter – but it is quite another to distort through officially sanctioned narratives and political propaganda their motivations, intentions and the ultimate reality of the battles they fought. It denies any potential to resist these narratives – labelling them as disloyal, disrespect and un-Canadian – while using this cover to bolster contested ideological positions. Moreover, it leaves out any context as if moral considerations can simply be willed away because they are trumped by heroism and sacrifice.

The First World War and – in particular the Battle of Vimy Ridge – is often touted as the ‘birth’ of Canadian identity. (This narrative competes with the Conservative version of history in which one can be birthed twice: in 1812 and in 1917 without succumbing to the contradiction). The narrative has always been simplistic and largely the product of expediency for later generations attempting to push their view of the country. Vimy was not a national awakening but part of a larger narrative (indeed, it was part of a larger trend in Canadian-British affairs). The most demonstrably false narrative of the Great War – and no doubt inspired by the propaganda so associated with the war – was the notion that it was a battle for democracy. This only works if we view Imperial German through the lens of allied propaganda and ignore the imperial status of both France and Britain (of which Canada was a part). The reality was that, democratically speaking, each of the powers was on an almost equally footing. The war was, like the war that preceded it a century before, a classic European great power struggle. It was not a ‘great war for civilization’ but a war to determine dominance.

The Second World War conforms most closely to the notion of a war for democracy. By this point it was clear that Canada, France and the United States had become modern democratic states (if you overlook some glaring contradictions) while Germany was evidently fascist. This becomes more complicated as the battle moves to the Pacific theatre. It is difficult to understand how the war here could be considered as a just war as it was little more than a battle to keep South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent European rather than Japanese. British forces defending Hong Kong and Singapore were, in essence, fighting to preserve occupied territory from being occupied by another foreign power. It was another imperial war fought between the democratic empires of France, Britain and the Netherlands against the fascist Empire of Japan.

The Korean War was the first salvo in a Cold War that quickly went hot, but a war not for democracy (South Korea would be anything but) but a war for capitalism and geopolitical dominance. The war in Afghanistan would follow a similar pattern with the West playing out larger geopolitical conflicts in what was essentially a civil war. These conflicts have been drawn into the larger narrative of remembrance.

Remembrance in the present is void of context. It attempts to situate military history within a larger national narrative while disguising its political, normative and ideological preference behind images of veterans, heroism and self-sacrifice for the nation. It places all conflict on the same moral plane, a position which acts as an erasure for any questions of ethics. Its effect is to deny agency to soldiers and, with it, erases personal responsibility by evoking larger aims. If – as critics of the white poppy claim – that the day and the symbol are inherently anti-war and pro-peace, the rhetoric undermines it.

Herein is the difficulty: to acknowledge sacrifice without reifying military service; to acknowledge service while also asking difficult and uncomfortable questions; and to understand our history without accepting it as given, static and closed to new interpretation. In short, we have a problem of reconciling contemporary reality – and morality – with historical events without simply accepting a narrative that plays better than the reality.

A case in point: in 2007 the Canadian War Museum bowed under pressure to alter an exhibit on allied bomber missions during the second war, missions which included campaigns waged largely against civilian targets and designed to disrupt enemy morale (at the time a legitimate undertaking with no ethical qualms by those involved). The museum presented historical fact – including the number of casualties and the post-facto analysis of the value, strategic or otherwise, of these missions – but was met with considerable resistance from veterans. Reality, fact and historical record were somehow an ‘insult’ to those who served. The museum caved to pressure.

That incident is emblematic of what has happened to our period of national remembrance (it now stretches beyond the 11th). We are content to accept to the narrative, to accept the justifications of those who witnessed the events, despite changes in our understanding of these events and despite the historical record. In short, we are frozen into the narrative of 1914. It is a rhetoric echoed by King George VI as he unveiled the national memorial in 1939 on the eve of yet another global conflagration:
Surmounting the arch through which the armed forces of the nation are pressing forward are the figures of peace and freedom. To win peace and to secure freedom Canada's sons and daughters enrolled for service during the Great War. For the cause of peace and freedom 60,000 Canadians gave their lives, and a still larger number suffered impairment of body or mind. This sacrifice the National Memorial holds in remembrance for our own and succeeding generations.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, that the Great War was anything more than an imperial war brought about by a complex alliance system and a failure of leadership. It was not, as the King claimed, a sacrifice for ‘the cause of peace and freedom’ but a war for continental dominance, the perpetuation of years of European history. History is written by the victors as Churchill said and the victors justify their own actions how they see fit.

Almost seventy-five years later the King’s speech remains the template for contemporary dedications. Its spirit and, indeed, the words themselves, remain little changed. The present accepts the received wisdom willingly, unquestioningly. We remain unable to separate sacrifice from political justification. To alter our view of history – our history – and to reappraise where we have been is the mark of a mature democracy. It should be possible to honour veterans without retroactively condemning their actions in light of changing mores and ethical developments or questioning their genuine and sincerely held motivation. At the same time, it should equally possible to do so without simply giving in to the comfortable but ultimately vacuous narrative of valour and national self-sacrifice. A sober, dispassionate appraisal of our record as a country – including the military record for better or worse – should be possible without being branded as a disrespectful traitor.


The ‘cause of peace and freedom’ cannot be served by ignoring the lessons of history. Remembrance is at its core about reflection. It should be neither about condemning nor justifying, but it should be critical. Canadians should vow to do more than make a pledge to never forget. They should pledge to understand the lessons of history and take them to heart. Remembering should not require having to swallow the narrative whole or being forced to accept the jingoism of sacrifice. “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. How we remember war is equally political.

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