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War, peace and the burdens of remembrance

By Gerald Schmitz

11/05/2014
Gerald Schmitz

What force moves the nations? . . . Why did millions of people kill one another when it has been known since the world began that it is physically and morally bad to do so? - Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, second epilogue and Some Words About War and Peace (Russian Archive 1968)

The great Russian pacifist Tolstoy, writing about the Napoleonic wars that raged across Europe a century before the far more murderous world wars of the past century, gave a distressing answer to these questions. He saw war as a constant factor in the history of our species; indeed an "inevitable necessity."

In his seminal 2002 book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, former American war correspondent and anti-war critic Christopher Hedges examined the potency in the collective American consciousness and national mythology of the assertion of superior American military power - held to be virtuous and benevolent in intention, and even when misguided or unsuccessful (as in the debacles of Vietnam and Iraq), portrayed as heroic action by the nation's fighting men and women. For some young men especially, war, the rush of combat, becomes a "drug," a "lethal addiction." One sees the myths and the machismo played out in any number of Hollywood war movies and American war documentaries.

DEMOCRATIC FREEDOMS - Soldiers guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in this Oct. 27, 2014 photo. There's reason to be seriously concerned about the state of our democratic politics and to not trust governments to safeguard our freedoms in this era of the surveillance state, writes Gerald Schmitz.

Canadians have never experienced a revolutionary or fratricidal civil war. Despite the deadly attack at the National War Memorial and in the Canadian Parliament on Oct. 22, this country remains one of the most peaceful places on the planet. Abroad we like to see ourselves as "peacekeepers" no matter how minimal our current contribution to UN peace operations.

Still, next week's Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa will be an especially sombre occasion at a place where a soldier was gunned down. Canada is once again at war - inside Iraq (with Maclean's magazine's cover headlines shifting from "Stephen Harper Goes to War" on Oct. 20 to "Canada's New War" on Nov. 3). In the almost seven decades since the end of the Second World War, Canada has undertaken six combat missions. Five have occurred in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War: the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Iraq. Instead of hopes for a "peace dividend," new fears about "homegrown terrorism."

The centenary of the so-called Great War's outbreak has also inspired more rhetoric about wartime sacrifices and nation-building on the battlefield of Vimy, however tragically senseless the toll from that contest among empires and however terrible its aftermath.

Angles, photo by Gerald Schmitz

On Sept. 26-28 the Group of 78 devoted its annual conference to the theme "World War I and Contemporary Policy on War and Peace" - held appropriately in the national War Museum. Indeed those who have fought in wars tend to be among the most conscious of its horrors and the most concerned with the paths to peace.

How much have we learned about avoiding war in the century since the world witnessed slaughter on an industrial scale?

Even as we've survived seven decades with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, the technologies of warfare grow ever more sophisticated. Increasingly there's resort to killing by high-altitude airstrikes, by stealth and remote-controlled drones. Still, what war does to people is as brutal and bloody as ever. Our collective security organizations, important as they are, have at best mixed success in curbing state violence and military aggressions, often involving non-state entities engaged in terror and "asymmetrical" warfare.

Historians who spoke to the G78 conference were generally not very optimistic about lessons learned. Desmond Morton's opening address on the political consequences of the First World War for Canada observed that some of the sobering awful truths about it are still omitted from the history textbooks used in schools. Queen's University professor Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, co-authors of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, addressed the mythologizing of wartime sacrifices and nation-building that Swift referred to as "Vimyism." In fact, in the years before the Second World War, Canadian veterans held a very dark view of the first war. McKay guided the audience through an extraordinary and searingly anti-war series, Canada's Epic Story Told in Official War Photographs, published in the Toronto Daily Star, the country's largest mass circulation daily, in the winter of 1934. It was put together by a decorated veteran, Gregory Clark, recipient of the Military Cross as an infantry lieutenant at Vimy Ridge.

When we think about remembrance we need to go beyond approved comforting national narratives. We need to think about the reality of all those who died. Actor and activist R.H. Thomson, who is spearheading a multi-country project putting names to the dead, The World Remembers 1914-1918 (http://www.theworldremembers.org/), challenged the audience to ask critical questions about how we frame our collective historical memory of the experience of war.

"One observes the anniversary of an appalling tragedy because one hopes to have some impact, however miniscule, in preventing it from happening again, and out of a belief that the dead deserve better than to be consigned to historical oblivion." - Jonathan Vance, "Remembrance," Canada's History, Special Commemorative World Wars Issue, October-November 2014

There's no doubt that the First World War had a profound impact on Canada. The 68,000 Canadians killed over its four years would be equivalent to having lost 310,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

That kind of burden may seem unimaginable today. But it is well to reflect on the implications of another "global war on terror" - which is a prescription for a permanent state of paranoia, not just a "long war" but a neverending one since terrorism is a tactic typically of the weak, not the strong, and in any case cannot be defeated by military means alone.

Today's propaganda wars with new threats like the "Islamic State" extremists are being waged globally and electronically via social media. As Nicole Schwartz-Morgan of the Royal Military College pointed out, "the pool (of potential recruits) is enormous and it's not by carpet bombing that we are going to stop it." Or as Daryl Copeland put it succinctly during a closing roundtable moderated by CBC radio host Michael Enright: "Security is not a martial art."

Sometimes great evil may need to be met by force. But war in itself brings evils in its wake and can never on its own be a solution to peace. In the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,"Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows." Lest we forget.