Friday, November 11, 2011

11/11/11, or It's Never "Over By Christmas"

The last time there was an 11/11/11, so many things hadn't happened yet.

The RMS Titanic was still being fitted out for what was then assumed would be a long and safe career at sea as a luxury liner. Lester B. Pearson, the Canadian Prime Minister whose government (among other things) would introduce such things as universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and the current Canadian flag, was fourteen years old. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. weren't born yet. Neither was María Eva Duarte de Perón, who is still better known as "Evita." The stock market crash of 1929 was still eighteen years away.

And the war which officially ended on this day in 1918, and which was settled in 1919 under terms which set up the conditions which made the Second World War possible, was still a bit over two and a half years away.

It seems almost unthinkable that a political assassination led directly to one war and indirectly to another. Indeed, the First World War largely broke out because a number of powerful empires who were already chronically angry with each other threatened each other, called each other names, refused to back down no matter what, and, invoking various alliances, dragged other countries into the fight. Eventually, there were very few nations anywhere that weren't involved somehow. The assassinations of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, may have been the spark that set the fire, so to speak, but it would never have happened if there hadn't been the political kindling and fuel for the fire in the first place. And for all that the propaganda said that the soldiers on "our side" were fighting for what was right, the truth is that more than nine million people died because Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire refused to learn to play nice with each other. Or anyone else, either, really, especially when it came to the issue of territory in the Balkans.

Colonialism sucks. In this case, it turned out to be deadly for over nine million combatants and who knows how many civilians.

And so, November 11 has been known variously as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Veteran's Day, and Poppy Day since King George V officially dedicated the day to such observances in 1919. But what do we remember? What are we glorifying with this day? What are we telling kids with these military-inspired services, both religious and not, and with all these repetitions of Col. John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields," which tells the reader to "take up our quarrel with the foe"? What are we telling ourselves?

And what have we allowed ourselves to forget?

We say "Lest We Forget" and "we will remember them," but in glorifying the lives of those who died in battle, neglecting those who came home changed or even broken, and those who were not soldiers but who suffered anyway, we've forgotten what the observance of this day was supposed to accomplish in the first place: to remind us never to let such a senseless tragedy happen again.

But it did happen again, and it will keep happening until humans, especially our leaders, learn to settle disputes without destroying lives and land in the process.

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