On Remembrance and Sacrifice

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the United States), the traditional debates have begun cropping up online. They tend to centre on whether we should wear the red poppy in remembrance, but beneath fashion choices lies the deeper question: can we commemorate veterans, without venerating war?

To me, perhaps because of my upbringing or my leanings as a historian, Remembrance Day has never carried with it the celebration of war that so many attribute to it, for a simple (and probably too simplistic) reason. Remembrance Day originated to mark the anniversary of the armistice agreement which ended the most horrific war in human history, World War I. The armistice came into effect at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918.  To me, Remembrance Day — and its indelible symbol, the red poppy — have always been about exploring the vantage point of a war just ending, when we finally have the opportunity to pause and take stock of all that has happened. If there is any celebration at all in the day, it is in the bloodshed having ended, in the hope for peace for future generations. Those hopes are tempered, of course, by the horror of war that can only truly hit us once it is over — by mourning all those who sacrificed, military and civilian alike.

I realize that is not what the red poppy means to everybody, and that some find it difficult to see the poppy, or Remembrance Day itself, as a symbol of peace. To be fair, both the symbol and the day have elements of praise and honour for the soldier, which implicitly include honour for what the soldier does. But even that, for me, is far from sufficient to make us turn our backs on the day, or on the poppy. War is terrible, but I have never been able to deny the crucial role that a soldier can play. Perhaps it is the classically overused example, but remembering my grandparents’ experience in the Holocaust is all the proof I need that war, though horrific, can be necessary.

Not, of course, that any of the Allied powers fought World War II to save Jews, just like the Vietnamese didn’t really invade Pol Pot’s Cambodia to save the Cambodians, and the North didn’t really fight the American Civil War to free slaves. But I find it hard to deny that war can have just results, in the right circumstances.

Against those examples are wars like Vietnam and Iraq, but it’s easy for us as Canadians to feel self-righteous about those, since our elected leaders were wise enough to keep us out of them. How might we feel if our fathers or our friends had fought there? The better example is the one that started Remembrance Day in the first place, World War I. It was, without a doubt, the most senseless waste of human life in history, 10 million military and 7 million civilian dead for no reason beyond nationalism and colonial ambition. It’s staggering, mind-numbing, to believe that humans ever descended to it. What’s more, it’s not even like the collective horror of the bloodshed shocked Europe into ensuring that it wouldn’t be repeated. Indeed, the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch was disturbingly prophetic when he derided the treaty that ended the Great War as nothing more than a 20-year armistice. The Treaty of Versailles, of course, was signed in 1919, exactly 20 years before Nazi Germany invaded Poland to launch World War II.

That senseless horror has always fascinated me about World War I, that question of how human beings were able to kill so many for so little reason. It’s why, as I sat down to write an alternate-world novel, I decided to set it during a World War I-style conflict. My book is told from the point of view of a pacifist politician trying to end the war, and neither Deugan nor Brealand, the fictional countries who are the main combatants, can be said to be the “bad guys” in the story. The true antagonist is the war itself, and all of the forces on both sides that conspire to keep people fighting. It’s a different perspective from most war stories, and to me, World War I is the quintessential war in which to tell it.

Yet I still don’t find the answers easy. Despite the enormous costs of war, peace too has a price, and that is what my novel explores. As early as the third chapter, the hero asks one of her country’s most respected generals whether peace is one of his values. He replies that it is not: while he certainly wants peace, “some things are worth fighting for.” Thus begins one of the conflicts that drives the story. As it continues, our hero’s idealism is tested, and we see just how much she is prepared to sacrifice for the cause of peace.

That, ultimately, is what Remembrance Day and the poppy are about: the sacrifices that have been made, for better or for worse, in the hopes that peace will follow. It is a commemoration of peace, not war. It is a day we should not celebrate, but we should commemorate. We should remember it, mourn it, and, if at all possible, learn from it.

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