There is something that bothers me about Remembrance Day, and I can never quite put my finger on what it is – at least, not without knowing that my discomfort is at least somewhat inaccurate, because I’m not sure it’s Remembrance Day in principle that’s problematic, so there’s some baby-bathwater conflation going on. Like a lot of people who have opposed or criticized contemporary wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, even Kosovo), I know how quickly discussion of “remembrance” turns into “support our troops”, even here in Canada. It’s a day when it’s rendered unseemly to criticize military practices and policy, even as what we’re supposed to be bringing the horrors of war into public consciousness.
I think my problem is that we’re not. Not really. We’re listening to mournful trumpet music, looking at wreaths and poppies, reciting a poem that has been stripped of emotional power for most of us as through sheer grade-school repetition, and looking at black-and-white photos of smiling young men in uniform. We’re practicing symbolic rituals that, for the vast majority of Canadians, have absolutely nothing to do with war. Remembrance Day involves a series of prescribed ways for discussing, thinking about and “remembering” specific wars, as well as specific ways of fighting those wars. First of all, we’re talking about the noble wars – the Great War, the Second World War, battling communism in Korea. Second, we’re talking about the men who took up arms to go over there and fight. We’re allowed to talk about how they died, but not about whom they killed. We’re not allowed to talk about women who were raped as acts of war. Maybe if we’re really feeling generous, we’ll talk about how Canadian women stepped up on the home front, we might check out some pictures of young, 1940s era war widows holding babies and looking stoically prepared to face the challenge, but certainly not about the likelihood that such women fell into poverty from lack of social support systems or ability to work. We’re not going to talk about the post-traumatic experiences of soldiers or people living in war zones.
The pictures we see are all going to be in black-and-white, and there’s not going to be any blood in them. Not visibly, anyway. Everyone is going to be wearing nice, neat uniforms, remaining silent and on their best behaviour. A friend of mine called it a national funeral mass, which I suppose is fair, and his point is that there is a place for exactly this kind of ritualistic “mourning”. As he said, you don’t show the pictures with the blood at the funeral of an individual who died violently. I’m still contemplating his point, because something still sits wrong with me, as the whole constructed experience feels problematic. I still question whether it’s the event in itself or what has become an inevitable component of it – that you’re not allowed to mention the problems with the official story, let alone the other half of the story, or even the contemporary military and its actions.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how war has become an event mitigated through television screens and newspaper articles, and I suppose my point is that I don’t see how this changes it. In fact, I think it makes it worse. Peace activists I know are far more likely to have seen photos of real, bloody, violent death from recent or ongoing conflicts and wars, or even to have been on-hand to see some of that violence. The sepia tones, the flowers, the narrative of nobility, honour, sacrifice – that creates more distance, not less, between us and war. Lest we forget, this shit happens in colour.
I’m not wearing a poppy today, and that’s pretty much why.