Monday, November 12, 2012

War Is Not Great

Once again, Remembrance Day has come and gone.  (Or Veterans Day, or Armistice Day, depending on where you live, if you live in a place where November 11 is a day to remember the end of the First World War.)  And once again, I have a few thoughts.

The Great War, the one that this day was originally set aside to remember, officially began 98 years, three months, two weeks, and three days ago.  It officially came to an end 94 years ago today.  After all this time, some of the battlefields of this war remain dangerous, thanks to unexploded shells, the possibility (still!) of being exposed to mustard gas, and other assorted remains of the ammunition used in the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles, signed the following June, set up many of the conditions that not only made the Second World War possible, but, arguably, inevitable.  And although I can't speak for anything before 1988 or so (my first school-hosted Remembrance Day celebration), as far back as I can remember observing Remembrance Day, I remember the most powerful message being "don't ever let a tragedy of this magnitude happen again."  I've read that in the aftermath of the First World War itself, the message was very similar.

But that has slowly changed, and I don't like the shape that the changes are taking.  The focus has slowly slipped from "don't let it happen again" to "worship the soldiers; they died for your FREEDOM!!!" And a day that was once anything but a glorification of war has gradually become precisely that.  Instead of "never again," it's "be proud and grateful."  And in Canada, we're told that this war, our first as a nation, was (despite all that came before and after) the defining moment in our nation's history, the time when we actually became our own country.

As if it takes a war to confer the status of nationhood upon the people who live on any of the (largely arbitrary) sections of land that we call "countries."

There's no doubt that the First World War was one of the defining events of the twentieth century.  Its effects still reach us today, nearly a century after it officially began.  And the Second World War was no less important.  But when all the wars after that aren't considered to be as notable (especially as the second one becomes more a matter of what's written in the history books rather than a matter of lived experience), and when my country is being encouraged to think of ourselves as a warrior nation instead of the peacekeepers that we had once been proud to be, I can't help but think that we're doing a great dishonour to the very people we are supposed to be remembering and honouring on Remembrance Day.

They didn't die for values like freedom or national pride or any other impressive-sounding word.  Whatever their personal reasons for going to war, they died because of politics.  Soldiers are still dying because of politics and because of politicians who would rather send women and men to their deaths than work out their differences around a conference table, where these things are ultimately decided anyway once far too many lives have been lost or irreparably damaged.

And don't forget the civilians.  They, too, make sacrifices and they, too, are directly affected by wars.  It is their homes that are destroyed, their fields that are made unsafe for growing food, and, all too often, it is their lives that are brutally ended and then brushed off as collateral damage.  Unimportant.  A minor detail.  They are never remembered at these ceremonies as the dead and wounded soldiers are, though their lives were of no less value and their sacrifices were no less complete.  And the civilians whose friends or family members are sent off to war have a significant chance of losing somebody who is profoundly important to them.

This is the year 2012 C.E., and we should know better than to glorify war, particularly after the many conflicts of the twentieth century.  But the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Syria, and the military conflicts inYemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Mexico, and Colombia, among many others, prove that we have not learned our lesson.  When it comes down to it, "they have something we want, so let's attack them for it" or "they're doing something we don't like, so let's attack them for it" or even "they aren't a democracy like us, so let's attack them for it and try to force their country to make itself over into our own image" (which of course has gone so well for everybody involved) is still a much louder message than "don't let another war happen" ever has been.  But war has no winners and although it is sometimes a necessary evil (people do, or ought to, have the right to defend themselves against aggressors, and it is a good thing to actually help nations out who have been unjustifiably attacked, after all), it is never ever a force for actual good.  In war, there is simply evil and less evil.  That's it.

This does not mean, of course, that I do not have respect for veterans or their dead comrades.  I do.  I simply choose to acknowledge that the sacrifices that they (and the civilians who were caught in the crossfire) made should not have been necessary.

I will end this rant with the following video.  It was released in 1990, and while the lyrics do not acknowledge the fact that women have taken part in military conflicts and the music itself now sounds a little dated, the message is still an important one.

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